AJ DeLaGarza has only ever played for the LA Galaxy. With the tremendously sad news last week that his infant son passed away, Friday night’s Galaxy victory was marked by touching displays of support from the fans at the StubHub Center. The news, however, resonated far beyond California. There was a moment of silence before every Major League Soccer game this weekend. Fans in New York and New England had signs with messages of support for him. If there is a silver lining to the story of Luca DeLaGarza, it’s that it highlighted a sense of community among MLS fans, which extends not just within each fanbase, but league-wide. I can’t think of any other league that generates that sort of bond.
Soccer fans in the United States are minority, a niche, and we know this. So while we all have different teams, there is a general sense that we are all on the same side; we want the game to grow. In Boston, Spurs fans and Everton supporters can watch a game together in peace, in a way that they couldn’t in Liverpool or London. “Not punching each other” is perhaps setting the bar low, but I think you get my point. Where this family-feeling gets complicated is in MLS, because the league has often asked fans and teams to sacrifice for the best interests of the league.
This is all rooted in single-entity, the structure under which the league pays all player salaries, and organizes a great deal of player movement. In the beginning, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, that structure kept the league alive. Owners could sustain losses for the sake of the league, where they often couldn’t for individual teams in the NASL. There was a point when Phil Anschultz owned six of the ten teams, because the league needed it. So how much could a fan of DC Unitedhate the Fire? If Chicago failed, so might the league, and therefore so would DC. MLS has reached it’s 19th season—now healthier than ever—because of the structure.
Major League Soccer is no longer in mortal peril. The uncertainty that plagued the league’s early years has been replaced with a sense of optimism. But while the league isn’t at risk of collapse, I think all of its fans want it to continue to grow. We want an MLS with a higher profile. As a Red Bulls fan, I believe that a better MLS will eventually result in a better, more successful team for me to root for. And I find myself obsessively checking attendance of other teams, with the hopes that they’re doing well.
So I ask: to what extent is a fan of Major League Soccer obligated to support the league as a whole? That’s not a question that comes up for the NBA or NFL, because both of those leagues are firmly entrenched. But does it therefore behoove a fan of last-place Montreal to pull for a final between LA and New York, because of the television audience that would potentially bring? I don’t think any fan of Sporting Kansas City or Real Salt Lake is upset that their clubs made the final last year. But those are two of the three smallest markets in the league, and English language viewership of the MLS Cup reached record lows. Should I ignore whatever I might feel about those two clubs root against a repeat?
These are questions that the league and its fans will have to come to terms with, and evolve on, as MLS grows. Likewise, MLS will have to reconsider the single-entity structure and rules put in place to enforce parity as that becomes less vital to the league’s health.