Monday, January 16, 2017

The Cable Snapped, or Innocence Lost
By: Vidda “JibJab” Grubin
September 7, 2014 (Amended January 16, 2017)

{The below is an update of a piece I wrote over two years ago. Given the trajectory of Major League Soccer, I thought a redo was in order.}

The cable snapped…twang…quietly. The auditory nature of the “twang” made sense, the cable was made out of Twizzlers. The kids picked up the scatted pieces of red deliciousness quicker than a soccer mom, or dad, can peel an orange.

The game was over and Tommy and Timmy had somehow found a way to tie Twizzlers around their two dirt and grass-stained soccer balls. After circling the individual balls in sugary goodness, the two friends got the idea to tie the balls together with the remaining stretchy lengths of candy.

Gabbi, the goalkeeper for the under seven Squarepants Middleburg Youth Soccer Association team, had shouted “See how far you can stretch the balls apart.” Her declaration of childhood ingenuity was met by a raucous cheer from the rest of the Squarepants team.

Tommy and Timmy began pulling, slowly, the two balls apart. Time seemed to stand still as the small group of six and seven-year-olds (scraped knees, runny noses and bed hair) leaned closer. One or two attentive parents joined the time altering fun.

Six inches apart, seven, eight and then…twang…quietly. The picking-up and eating of the Twizzlers was accompanied by shouts of “Don’t eat that!” and “Gross!” Not a single child present remembered the game which had ended only five minutes earlier.

One particular dad remembered. He was busy waving his hands wildly at the 13-year-old referee. Words were coming out of the crimson faced father’s mouth. Something about offside and something about the Squarepants’ opponents, The Fiddlesticks, deserving to win. The 13-year-old ref stared, slack jawed, at the wild-eyed father. And then, the 13-year-old walked away, while mumbling “Wow” under his breath.

Like that Fiddlesticks father, North American soccer has finally made it to the edge of reason. North American soccer’s version is the billion-dollar, sports as big time business precipice. Major League Soccer has pushed the beautiful game up the rocky slope. There have been casualties along the way. The Tampa Bay Mutiny come to mind. There have been near disasters. Paul Caligiuri almost having to play more than a single season in Columbus, Ohio may have destroyed what little credibility MLS clung to in its infancy.

Don Garber, Major League Soccer’s billionaire owners and wanna-be owners want to push our sport over the edge and into the rainbow, unicorn and pot of gold filled valley below. The LeBron James, Mark Cuban, Jerry Jones, Tom Brady and Derek Jeter filled valley.

For many soccer fans, myself included, the trip up the mountain has been fun, a kind of affirmation of the bullied child’s life and dreams. For many soccer fans, like myself (somewhere between 45 and 60 years old), the thought of riding the unicorns and digging in the pots of gold is both quiver-inducing and nauseating.

We want to see the world’s greatest players on our Columbus Crew, Chicago Fire, New York Red Bull, Seattle Sounders and L.A. Galaxy. We want to watch youngsters born and raised in the United States command Messi-like respect. But we grew up with a chip on our shoulder. We carry that chip proudly. That chip helps define our soccer minds. That chip is as big as a boulder taken from the mountainside as we climbed higher and higher. That chip is made of taunts like “Soccer is for sissies. Why don’t you move to France if you want to play that commie sport? Soccer will never be big in the United States.”

Despite the rocky past, we cherish Saturdays at the park with our children. We look forward to a Thursday evening beverage remembering the ferociousness of a shot, the creativeness of a pass shared with the handful of lucky travelers who played the game alongside us in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Our sport was our special secret, only the chosen few knew what made it shine.

Now, North American soccer is about to leap into a world of cocky, self-assured prominence. There is no room for hard-won boulders. What are we supposed to do with all those boulders? So many un-answered questions.

Will there still be room for size four soccer balls wrapped in Twizzlers? Or, perhaps more importantly, for the adult equivalent of size four soccer balls wrapped in Twizzlers, hidden coolers of beer dragged triumphantly from beneath team benches, flung open, contents emptied in a glorious celebration of the local team, it’s fans and caretakers winning the right to play at the next level?

You know, those boulders might just come in handy. Strap them on. Wear them proudly; because, there is one universal truth about our sport. The more human beings who feel a direct connection to the ball, the field of play, the teams, the players, coaches and fans, the greater the magical players become, the more vivid the magical moments shine.

We and all those who came before us, and our children after, those who slogged through mud puddles, spent hours juggling into the night, used trashcans for goals and cracked shins created the opportunity for the handful of businessmen who started Major League Soccer. It is our boulder to carry, and that boulder is shared with hundreds of millions around this beautiful planet.

Those who think they “own” the sport of soccer in this hemisphere must earn their place among us. There is nothing stopping them, the United States Soccer Federation and Major League Soccer, from regionalizing soccer (the blueprint is already in place at the youth level) in this country from the very bottom to the very top. There is nothing stopping the USSF and Major League Soccer from implementing a standardized set of criteria/rules for promotion and relegation within each region. There is nothing stopping the USSF and Major League Soccer from beginning promotion and relegation in the lower divisions and promotion only into the top tier, MLS, when teams in the second tier win their way in and meet the set criteria for top level play.

Would Major League Soccer want twenty years before a single team is relegated from the top tier? So be it. Give them twenty years. Do they want 7 or 8 teams per region, per level and five or six regions? So be it. This is a large country and close proximity of regular competition brings us all greater joy. Would Major League Soccer still want a championship among the winners of each region? So be it.

In a weird way, it is our burden, those wearisome boulders, which may reconnect the frayed and snapped cables of North American soccer. It is all of us who bear their weight who must bring, kicking and screaming if need be, USSF and MLS back into the beautiful game’s wide open soul.

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