Major League Soccer is the only American pro sports league that came of age after the computer revolution. As such, fans often use the language of software to describe the league’s various iterations — MLS 1.0, 2.0, and so forth. Now that the league is considering allowing owner Anthony Precourt to ship the Columbus Crew, one of the league’s founding members, off to Austin, Texas, we might be on the verge of another release: MLS 4.0, the one when American soccer fans realize that they’ve been had.
Any American sports fan is comfortable, if not pleased, with the “franchise” model of pro sports, in which teams occasionally shift around the map. It’s part of the professional landscape, in which cities must regularly deliver new stadiums and other inducements to keep franchises from leaving town.
At the beginning of MLS, though, that situation was more or less reversed, with the league trying to figure out a way to establish itself. Most American cities weren’t all that interested in hosting a professional soccer team anywhere but in an existing, cavernous football stadium. The “build us a stadium or we’ll move” threat would have been laughable.
Columbus, in fact, was the first city to get on board the “soccer-specific stadium” trend, building Crew Stadium for the team in 1999. It was the first time MLS had managed to anchor itself to a local community — not to keep it from drifting to another town, but to keep the ship from floating away entirely.
Two decades later, though, the fears of the early years have dissipated. Columbus’ status as the “spiritual home of American soccer” turned out to be less important than the Crew’s lowly place in the league revenue rankings. Commissioner Don Garber, asked about the potential move, couldn’t help noting that Columbus isn’t making a whole lot of money off its old, suburban stadium, which looks rickety and quaint compared to the palatial digs built by other teams.
MLS has long strived for authenticity, trying to build the same kind of local passion and loyalty for its teams that European and South American teams enjoy. Whether giving teams names that aped European dynasties, or promoting “supporter” culture with scarves and flags and fan-focused sections of stadiums, the league has sought to establish itself as a comparable alternative. The same as the Premier League, but with no transcontinental flight required to attend a match.
If Columbus doesn’t build a new stadium, Precourt wants to move the team south. If MLS goes, it’ll be an important milestone for the league — a reminder that while it wants European-style local team loyalty, it’ll move that team, American-style, without a second thought. The league wants your loyalty in a way that’s not like any other pro sports league in America. But, like every other league in America, it will never return it.
• Norway’s soccer governing body announced this week that it will pay women’s and men’s national team members equally — a worldwide first. It’s a reminder that here in the United States, the men’s team, which failed to qualify for the World Cup from the world’s easiest group, is paid more than the women’s team, the reigning World Cup champion.
• Here’s a picture of how lucrative the Premier League is these days. Leicester City, the only English team to make it to the quarterfinals of the Champions League, earned a shade under $100 million from television deals in the Champions League. At the same time, the Foxes were finishing 12th in the Premier League, for which they earned more than $150 million.
• It wasn’t a repeat Big Ten championship, but the Gophers women’s soccer team managed to clinch second place with a double-overtime victory against Nebraska. The conference playoffs begin Sunday with a home game against Wisconsin. It’s the Gophers’ first time finishing in the top two for two consecutive years since 1995.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Premier League: Tottenham at Manchester United, 6:30 a.m. Saturday, NBCSN. Spurs striker Harry Kane will miss the game, and without its best weapon, Tottenham would do well to earn a draw. That said, Spurs dominated Liverpool last week. A road victory at Old Trafford would do wonders for the team’s confidence.
Serie A: Juventus at AC Milan, 11 a.m. Saturday, beIN. With more than a quarter of the Italian season in the books, it looks like AC Milan probably needs another year before it can climb back into the Serie A elite. Juventus finds itself in an unfamiliar position — third place. This could be a statement game for either team.
Bundesliga: RB Leipzig at Bayern Munich, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, FS2. It’s so far, so good for interim Bayern coach Jupp Heynckes, who has four victories in four games and has Bayern back in a tie atop the German table. These two teams met Wednesday in the German Cup, with Bayern winning on penalties. Leipzig is out for revenge.
MLS: Seattle at Vancouver, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, ESPN. Vancouver nearly won the Western Conference but ended up in third, where it had to play a midweek knockout game against San Jose. Seattle is without Clint Dempsey in the first leg of this two-legged game, so Seattle might hope for a comfortable draw in this one and a victory in the second leg on Thursday.