Armchair Analyst: How college football explains MLS

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I’m not a college football fan. Truth be told, I’m not much of an American football fan at all – the stop-start nature of the game itself kind of ruins the drama for me.

But on the odd autumn Saturday afternoon I will watch Auburn vs. Alabama, or Ohio St. vs. Michigan, or USC vs. Federal Investigators. And it’s not because I particularly care about any of those teams.

It’s because the fans in the stands at those games really, really care. You can’t miss it; you’d have to be deaf, dumb and blind, and even then you’d probably feel the vibration of the whole event through the floor and be able to pound along to it like Evelyn Glennie. For a real sports fan, that is a siren's call.

California Clasico - San Jose vs LA Galaxy on ESPN2

So about twice a year or so, I end up getting wrapped up in college football. It always catches me out of nowhere, and I always end the day thinking “Man, that was fun. I should watch those games more often, and I definitely shouldn’t have had that eighth beer.”

It doesn’t matter that whatever I was watching isn’t the highest level of football available. It doesn’t matter that I don’t really know the players. It doesn’t matter that more people care about the NFL.

What matters is that I end up watching teams that are representing their communities, watching fans that not only want to get lost in the outcome, but actually can’t help themselves. There’s something in the ridiculous tribalism of the whole endeavor, something that draws me in and makes it matter more.

And that’s what we’re starting to see with MLS. That’s what our league and teams have finally learned, and what our supporters' groups have known and shown each and every weekend since 1996. It’s never been about about being the SuperClub – it’s always been about being the Local Club.

It’s a lesson I’ve been hoping our teams would learn for a long time, because the biggest advantage MLS has on the great leagues of Europe or South America is that you can actually get to a game and watch it live, building a connection that just isn’t available otherwise. Yes, you may have left your heart in Munich or Milan, but unless you were born into it you do not have the connection to those teams the way someone in Section 8 has to the Fire.

Look at Sporting KC, with Matt Besler, Seth Sinovic and Michael Thomas. Or New York’s rookie duo of Ryan Meara and Conor Lade. The Galaxy and Chivas USA have rosters crammed full of SoCal guys, and San Jose are slowly but surely stocking up on NoCal representatives. These are meaningful local roots, colors that indicate more than just which franchise you’re hoping hoists a banner this winter.

When New York played D.C. United last week, that was Duke vs. UNC. The fans were into it, and not because of some giveaway or gimmick, or because Thierry Henry and Rafa Márquez had conferred legitimacy upon the proceedings since they had once played for teams that “really mattered on the world stage.”

They were into it because these two teams have been going at it for a generation. They were into it because the proceedings were legitimate merely by existing; nobody needed to confer anything (and my guess is Henry, with his keen sense of both the zeitgeist and history of the game, would be the first to agree with that).

Key Match-Up: LA's attacking trio vs. San Jose's wily defense

They were into it because New York and D.C. hate each other and that’s the way it’s always been, and these were our guys vs. their guys, so let’s scream as loud as we possibly can.

The same thing happened across the continent when Portland hosted Seattle. Or in the middle of it all where Chicago hosted Columbus.

We keep hearing that MLS is on its way to being one of the best leagues in the world, and since I’m a certified Kool-Aid drinker, I believe that. But the way we’ll get there isn’t by trying to emulate the EPL or La Liga, or by begging doubters to please take us seriously.

The way we’ll get there is by doing what we’re doing now: showing everyone just how much our fans care. Showing that Saturday night won’t just be San Jose vs. LA, but “Everything about what it means to be from the Bay vs. Everything about what it means to be from Hollywood.”

The focus is on the concept of identification. We are Us, you are Them, and what happens for the next 90 minutes is a chasm that can never be crossed.

Any true sports fan knows what that means.

Matthew Doyle writes the Armchair Analyst column for MLSsoccer.com.