The Throw-In: Generation X is disappearing from the pitch – but we're running the game
I’ve never felt so old.
My generation – the one that grew up on The Cosby Show and Garbage Pail Kids, is old enough to remember disasters from the Challenger to parachute pants, and whose minds are still blown by a band called Nirvana – is now irrelevant.
On the soccer pitch, that is.
I’ve been in this business long enough to wrap my mind around the fact that most players my age are ex-players, and that kids born in the 1990s are starting to take over the game.
But the last few weeks have been particularly hard as I’ve watched the retirements of Kevin Hartman, Matt Reis and Pablo Mastroeni. Add them to last year’s departures of Frankie Hejduk and Daniel Hernandez, and it’s a collection of recent retirements that strike a chord with geezers like me.
There’s some disagreement about what the exact cut-off is for Generation X, but the general consensus by the culturati is that those born in 1976 are the last of the grunge kids. And that’s been my identifier. Oh, I can understand you millennials just fine. OMG LOL! But sometimes I wonder if you all get me.
Look, I’m nowhere near so deluded that I believe I could’ve been a pro soccer player. (You should see me try to dribble.) But a lot of these guys I easily could’ve envisioned being my friends in high school or college, sharing common experiences and making the same jokes.
And it's the American guys I'm talking about. Sure, Alessandro Nesta and David Beckham are around my age, too. But in soccer terms, they were from another planet to me – age was the only thing we had in common. With the aforementioned Yanks, I feel like we had the same plight back in the day of proving we belonged.
I still reminisce with a lot of those guys about those old days. But they’re ex-players now. Generation X is almost completely finished playing the game.
In MLS right now, the only active players born in 1976 or earlier are Marco Di Vaio (37), Carlo Cudicini (40), Marcus Hahnemann (an ageless 41), Jon Busch (37) and, if he finds a new home in 2014 instead of hanging ’em up himself, Joe Cannon (38).
I pointed this out to Busch over the phone on Wednesday and nearly ruined his offseason.
“Oh man,” the Earthquakes ’keeper said. “You’re killing me. I’m going to be thinking about this all winter now.”
But Buschy gets me. We were born about a month apart, and he, too, feels like he’s reaching across a generational divide half the time in his own locker room.
He pumps himself up before games with Guns N’ Roses; his teammates stare at him blankly. His fellow Quakes are giddy at the release of the PS4; he regales them with tales of beating Super Mario Bros. and they laugh at him like he’s the star of Jurassic Park.
“I’m a big hockey guy, so I’m quoting Slap Shot all the time in the locker room,” he laughs. “They’ve never even freakin’ heard of it. I quote Al Pacino in Donnie Brasco. They have no idea what I’m talking about.”
I feel ya, grandpa. These young’uns don’t know Pulp Fiction from Choose Your Own Adventure.
And that’s more than OK. MLS doesn’t need Generation X like it used to. For one, no one wants to see dudes pushing 40 running around a pitch unless it’s 2003 and their name is Preki.
There was a time when the league was almost wholly dependent on Gen Xers. They were the early faces Americans identified with: Mike Petke, Jason Kreis, Alexi Lalas, Eddie Pope, Greg Vanney, Steve Ralston ... the list goes on and on.
It’s a league for the young now. As MLS enters the great unknown of the next 50 years with more teams and loftier goals, it’s no longer a game for Gen Xers. It’s a game for our kids. Literally.
The audience that will be the key demographic for the league in this MLS 3.0 phase is younger, savvier, better connected and, honestly, more intelligent about the game and what MLS’ place in the world will be.
It’s up to Gen X to adapt. Which we have done, thank you very much. The old guys have found their way into jobs around MLS, U.S. Soccer or the college game.
More than half the head coaches in MLS are former players of my crusty generation. More and more are following the path of Lalas and Brian McBride into TV studios. Others are going the route of Pope and Jeff Agoos into business roles where they can affect the game from the executive level.
We’re not playing the game any more, but we’re still guarding it tightly. In essence, we’ve inherited the throne and we’re going to try to make it better for the kids who are playing it today.
If I think about it that way, I feel a lot younger – and even prouder of what my peers have accomplished.
Then again, Brad Friedel may still be playing when we’re all long gone from this earth. But I’m not entirely sure he’s human anyway.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com.