By the numbers: ReAL fans and real fans

excuse me, the sport -- is considered downright heretical.

For some, it's the way they were raised, and I certainly respect that. I was playing in a scrimmage with a friend from England a few weeks ago, and since it was just a scrimmage, I asked if we were changing sides at halftime. He was clearly perplexed as to why I wanted to mix up the teams, and I was clearly perplexed in turn until I realized that "changing sides" and "changing ends" were two different things entirely to him. He thought I was suggesting a player transfer.

Which brings me to one of the most egregious examples of the point I'm very slowly and painfully getting to, and the reason I can't watch MLS Wrap anymore. The weekly Fox Sports World highlight show, at the beginning of the season, went through each team's rosters for the upcoming season, but they would explain all changes to the roster as "transfers." Including players who were simply cut or waived, and not traded to another team. Where's the transfer there? To the player's couch?

This is what bugs me to no end -- this affectation of world football -- because it very often comes off as merely imitation with no substance. Of course, there are exceptions, as there are aspects of the game where it's clearly better to be like the rest of the world than not, like eliminating the shootout and regular-season overtime. Even the home-and-home quarterfinal playoff format, despite its flaws, was an improvement.

But I absolutely refute the notion that MLS will not be taken seriously as a league until they crown a champion based on regular-season record in a single table instead of divisions or conferences and playoffs. And don't even get me started on promotion and relegation.

The single-table theory is one of the most persistent within the Europhile fringes of MLS fandom. Recently, Steve Patton of internet soccer site SoccerLoop.com wrote an open letter to commissioner Don Garber that stated "bottom line, fans want this." When the A-League rebranded itself as the USL First Division and announced a single table for the 2005 season, posters to BigSoccer.com came out in droves to claim that "real" soccer fans would now bolt MLS to follow a "more pure" league.

Both of these claims are ridiculous. There's just no other way to put it.

On some level, this is both the blessing and the curse of the internet, because it makes it much easier to find other people who share and subsequently reinforce the opinions you used to think were totally unique. It can be very empowering in that regard. However, at the same time, it artificially inflates this notion of consensus.

Anecdotal evidence from a small, self-selecting group of demographically similar sports fans is in no way representative of the thousands of people who step through the turnstiles or turn on their televisions to watch MLS every year. If you were to poll the crowd at any MLS game about whether or not they wanted a single table or if they knew the A-League had switched, the most common answer would be "single what"? But if you ask the same question at your local Irish or English pub as they show English Premier League matches early on a Saturday morning, your answer would be much different.

Which brings us to the question as old as MLS itself, and that is, are those blokes watching Man U over a pint of Guiness at 7 a.m. your most prized target audience for this game, for this league? Are they the ones you should be looking to for guidance?

The answer, of course, is much more complicated than simply "yes" or "no." Clearly, these fans are important, but to cater too heavily to them risks alienating other, equally valuable fans. This comes back to the new team names. The "FC" in FC Dallas nominally stands for "football club," and again, is a convention used in countries where the American city-plus-nickname model doesn't hold sway. At the same time, is there a state in the union where American football is bigger than in Texas? The potential for confusion among those not "in the know" is staggering.

And while the capitalization hack for Salt Lake is designed to influence correct pronunciation, it's still going to look like the opposite of "Fake Salt Lake" for a lot of people. You've just created an obstacle for new fans to get over before they can actually become new fans, which seems like an odd strategy for a growing league.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, of course, and hearing those opinions is critical for the ongoing development of soccer in America. I'm skeptical, though, of any suggestion for the league that relies too heavily on the notion that "if there were just more people going to games who are just like me, everything would be fine," and this is often what comes out of these soccer purist echo chambers. Just because a young, single, male Arsenal fan doesn't understand what a suburban soccer mom brings to the table, it doesn't mean his way is the right way just because he's got more free time to be vocal about it.

If there is a single table, it's the one that all of us sit around to talk about soccer. Anyone who wants to take a part in that discussion should be allowed, whether they know who leads the Spanish second division in scoring or not. I sincerely hope that Thursday's town hall meeting with the Fire -- and the Storm, Chicago's new indoor soccer franchise -- reflects that diversity, and I have to hand it to the front offices of both teams and to the organizers of Section 8 Chicago for facilitating this sort of forum.

Chris Costello is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com.


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