What is an “identity”? It’s something that goes missing sometimes. Other times it gets mistaken or thieved. Once in a while, it’s secret.
Whatever use you prefer, it’s clear that it’s something so valuable, you’ve got to keep it close to the vest and under constant protection.
It’s a word that also gets passed around a lot when it comes to soccer. When you mention the name of certain world-renowned clubs, you know exactly what the identity is. Barcelona’s is the Beautiful Game at its essence. Arsenal’s is a commitment to youth development. Chivas Guadalajara is a symbol of pure green, white and red Mexican pride. The list goes on and on.
You may not always agree with the motivation behind them, but the point is that you mention the name, you know who they are. You know what they’re about. You know what they represent.
Major League Soccer is still in its infancy, relatively speaking. It’s difficult to compete with a century of history that many of the world’s clubs have, and creating your own history and identity in less than 20 years is a challenge. But it’s not impossible.
To MLS audiences, the identity of some clubs is easy to recognize. The LA Galaxy are about star power, glitz and glamour. D.C. United are about tradition and trophies. At Real Salt Lake, the team is the star. Those are just three easy ones to call out, and there are more we can debate.
But there are clubs within this league that are suffering from an identity crisis. If the club doesn’t know what it is, it’s hard for the fans to know. And that makes it even harder to establish a real club culture and a way to engrain what you stand for, not just in your own market, but league-wide and, in some respects, beyond the borders of the United States and Canada.
You can probably count off the clubs on your own fingers that are currently suffering from this. New York, Chivas USA and Toronto are probably the most obvious. That’s a trio of teams who keep trying to reinvent themselves over and over again in the hopes that they can start winning meaningful trophies. And each of those three has cleaned house yet again this offseason – which, depending on your point of view, is an attempt to find that ever-elusive identity or adding to an already established identity of dysfunction.
But no matter your views on any of these three clubs, you have to give them credit this winter: Each is making a concerted effort to reverse that history.
Toronto FC have burned through more head coaches than they’ve had seasons – all of which, it doesn’t need to be repeated, have ended without a trip to the MLS Cup playoffs. Newly named head coach Ryan Nelsen isn’t Canadian and doesn’t even have head coaching experience. But he’s the trusted choice of TFC president Kevin Payne, a guy who has more success and experience in MLS than pretty much anyone ever to occupy a front-office job in club history.
Meanwhile, they’ve tried to deepen their Canuck roots, drafting to ensure the roster continues to have a Canadian flavor and hiring former Canadian goalkeeper and MLS veteran Pat Onstad as chief scout.
WATCH: Chelís on Chivas USA's philosophy
Chivas USA have gone back to their roots, instituting a Mexican flavor at the club in order to reconnect them to the mother ship in Guadalajara. “El Chelís” is in the house as head coach, a handful of Los Angeles-area Mexican-American talent is fighting for roster spaces and more are expected.
And New York, finally on Thursday, made the right choice for head coach in club icon and good soldier Mike Petke. He may not have been the first, second or even third choice. But for a team that has had more head coaches than any club in league history, the Long Island native is the most deserving candidate.
Petke will be challenged in his first season as a head coach – and it’ll be interesting to see how he deals with the reinvested, hands-on Red Bull front office and the powerful ego that is Thierry Henry – but this will go a long way toward repairing a rift with a devoted fanbase that is tired of underachieving.
Will any of this work? Will the changes result in silverware? It’s hard to say. The fan base at each club is tired of turnover, dying for some sort of consistency and desperate for something tangible to show for it. The critics have been loud in each market, and they’ve all got solid points here and there.
Maybe New York will finally get over the hump and get that tortured fanbase an MLS Cup at last. Maybe Toronto FC will finally simply make the playoffs and win back some of the fans they’ve alienated during six seasons of futility. Maybe Chivas’ controversial return to a Mexican-leaning philosophy will result in a real rebirth.
Or maybe they won’t. Maybe there will be no immediate payoff from any of this. Maybe the time it takes to build something will continue, and these clubs will need a little more time to create their own history.
Building an identity takes time. It requires consistency. It involves some mistakes along the way. And most crucially, it takes bold steps put forward by people who are willing to take risks.
Win or lose, it’s about time these teams had a good identity check.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.