MLS Slowly Gaining That Major League Look

MLS’s days of NFL stadiums and ridiculous team names are fading away
by Jeff Maurer   |   Thursday, March 22, 2012

2002 New York MetroStars & 2012 Portland Timbers (MLS)

For MLS fans, the future can’t come quickly enough. We know that one day MLS will be one of the world’s top leagues, able to compete for the best humanoid players in the Galactic Empire (it might be a while before we get there). True, there was a scrappy lovability to the early days of the league - it was kind of like watching a band that will be good one day but will have to switch drummers and kick out the friend who only does backing vocals before they’ll be any good.

Too often in the early days MLS just didn’t LOOK right. There were gridiron football lines on the grass, tens of thousands of empty seats in the stands and something called the Tampa Bay Mutiny on the field. The aesthetic appeal of, say, a Champions League final, in which the field is perfect, the stadium is full and the teams’ colors and traditions are well established, was missing. Thankfully, in 2012, most MLS matches no longer have the aesthetic impact of Major League Lacrosse. More often than not there are two recognizable soccer teams playing on a real life soccer field in an actual soccer stadium. Looking back only ten years, the changes in the quality of the setup - not necessarily the quality of the teams, but the quality of their surroundings - are dramatic.

Number of playing surfaces with gridiron football lines on the field: 2002 - 8 of 10. 2012 - 2 of 19.

This is a huge difference. I don’t know why gridiron lines on a soccer field bother me so much, but they really do. Sometimes the lines were just confusing; you’d forget which lines were for gridiron football, which were for soccer, which were lacrosse and which were doubles tennis (“No - soccer is the turquoise lines, not teal! That ball’s still in play!”). But probably the bigger problem was the constant reminder: soccer is a second-tier sport in this country. If stadium owners needed to defile the grass with an elaborate grid - and if you think about it, gridiron football is more obsessed with precise measurement than any endeavor short of the drug trade - then they wouldn’t hesitate to do so. Sometimes, it wasn’t even an NFL team to which we were second fiddle; college teams that couldn’t make it to the BCS if they had a perfect record and compromising photos of every member of the BCS Selection Committee, were still free to slap their grid and logo all over the field. I’m glad those days are over.

Number of teams playing in gridiron football stadiums that are way too big: 2002 - 8 of 10. 2012 - 2 of 19.

There’s something pathetic about 12,000 fans in a stadium designed for 60,000. It has a very I Am Legend kind of feel to it. You can see it on TV: fans scattered randomly around the stadium, coats on the seats next to them, plenty of space for them to talk trash about each other without being overheard. There’s always one fat guy sitting by himself with his arms on the back of the seats on either side of him. It does not give the vibe of an intense, anticipated match. But when you see a packed house at BMO or JELD-WEN field with supporters throwing streamers and their chants clearly audible on TV, it seems like soccer. The Sounders play in a huge NFL stadium, but their attendance and enthusiasm are so great that the atmosphere seems right. The only person who preferred the old way of doing things was the afore-mentioned fat guy, but he’ll just have to attend WNBA games if he wants to sit with his knees in different time zones.

Number of teams with stupid, stupid names: 2002 - 3 of 10. 2012 - 2 of 19.

In 2002, FC Dallas was still the Dallas Burn, which screams “indoor soccer” or possibly “all-nude male review”. Kansas City called themselves the Wizards, and just to make clear that they weren’t referring to the somewhat badass Lord of the Rings-type wizards, they included a rainbow in their logo, making clear that they had the fidgety, diminutive hot air balloon enthusiast from The Wizard of Oz in mind. The New York franchise made a bizarre attempt to appeal to the entire New York area by calling itself the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, apparently having decided that the Greater Metropolitan Area Of New York City As Defined By The US Census Bureau, Which Includes Most Of New Jersey East Of I-87 And Parts Of Connecticut was slightly too long. Of course, that franchise is now named after an energy drink, so they continue to be one of the two stupid names in the league. The other stupid name is, of course, Real Salt Lake, which would make sense in Miami or San Diego but not in the whitest city in North America.

These days, you no longer have to squint for MLS to look major league. Sure, there’s a lot to be fixed: attendance in Columbus, Dallas and New England is anemic, and the more that can be done to phase out turf the better. And of course, the main driver of progress is a higher quality of play. But the days of watching the MetroStars battle the Fusion on a Meadowlands field consisting of nothing but dirt and gridiron football lines are - thankfully - over.


Georgetown Univ.
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DC United
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A comedian and avid fan who blogs about DC United for The Washington Post. He was a semifinalist on season 7 of Last Comic Standing and performs nationwide. A decent passer with a good strike from distance, but is glacially slow and has no left foot.