Jeff Bradley: Why you should catch the beautiful, addictive sickness of MLS club fandom
One by one they marched into the suite in Red Bull Arena on media day, the league's biggest stars: Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry, Graham Zusi and Matt Besler, Eddie Johnson and Clarence Goodson. Kyle Beckerman and … Michael Bradley.
And one by one we asked them a series of questions, including this one:
"There are a lot of American soccer fans who support the national team, especially during a World Cup year, but not all of them support an MLS team. Is it important for fans to support a team in the league, and if so, why?"
I don't think any players answered that it was not important. They all seemed to agree that, yes, it would mean a lot to the sport if more fans got behind more teams. As to the "If so, why?" part of their answers, my recollection is that it all seemed pretty bland.
When you think about it, there's no easy answer to the "why" part of that question. It is hard to take it past the standard, "Well, just because it is" kind of answer.
So, I've decided to take a stab at it myself.
It's important to support a team because viewing the game without a rooting interest is an often hollow experience. As a journalist, I'm all too familiar with "rooting for the story." In other words, with no team to pull for, we pull for a great game, a dramatic ending, a lot of goals, something controversial, anything to make it easier for us to write about.
But when you are a fan of a team, every game has meaning. Check that, every touch of the ball has meaning. Every through ball attempted moves you closer to the edge of your seat, every turnover leaves you gasping for air, at least until the play is nullified.
Heck, even the nullification part means something. When you have a team, you don’t channel-surf, live tweet (well, maybe you live tweet). You hold on until halftime, or at least until you see someone writhing in pain on the field and a stretcher headed out to get him.
If I'm not working a game, I often grumble about the poor quality of a game. I find myself muttering, "Will somebody at least create a chance?" I root for an early goal to open things up. I root for equalizers and hope beyond hope that, as impossible as this sounds, a two-goal lead really is "the most dangerous score in soccer."
This is not to say you always come away disappointed. But you never, ever, ever come away feeling ill.
And we all know there is nothing like feeling ill after watching a game. Ill because your team couldn't put three passes together. Ill because your team can't defend set pieces. Or may ill because, even though you won, every time your team failed to capitalize on a scoring chance you muttered to yourself, "That's going to haunt us later on." So you wait as later-on after later-on passes you by, and you guzzle a whole bottle of Maalox.
I know these feelings all too well, though my support of MLS teams has been ever-changing and on-again, off-again…and is about to become on-again, after eight years of watching MLS games with not ever feeling ill.
See, I went from MetroStars fan, since I worked for the club in 1996 and '97, to Chicago Fire fan, since my brother coached them from 1998-2002, back to MetroStars fan when my brother coached them from '03 (and nephew later played for them) until the final two regular-season games of '05, to Chivas USA fan in '06.
And then it all went away. My brother to the US national team and later, Egypt. My nephew to the Netherlands, Germany, England and Italy. No more team. No more illness.
I missed it.
Honestly, I tried to become a fan of the Philadelphia Union. Loved the atmosphere at PPL Park. Liked the direction of the club. But I can't lie. If a Union game started to fizzle, I was channel-surfing. I was thinking about other things. If I had to go before halftime, I went before halftime.When the Union won, yeah, great. When they lost? I couldn't convince myself to care.
I tried. But I had too much history to erase. History as a fan of all those teams I mentioned. And history as a sportswriter, trained in the art of "rooting for the story." I just couldn't fake it, no matter how I tried.
But, as you can probably imagine, the illness has returned. Yes, with Michael's return to MLS, and his move to Toronto FC, I can tell you I've already found myself feeling ill. I watched them play a preseason game in the fog. I mean, I tried to watch. I watched them cough up a lead in the final seconds of a game against Orlando City. I watched them lose 4-2 to Fluminense.
I've already started to warn the wife about "game nights," which will mean no one bugs me for two hours as I stew. No one will expect me to drive the kids to a friend's house during those two hours. Everyone will understand that those two hours are going to be me and my Maalox. I'm going to be miserable and love it.
So, I'm not going to tell you it's important for everyone to support an MLS team. It's up to you. But I will say, if you're not feeling ill over a team, you're missing out.