Sunday, September 21, 2014

MLS Next: A Signal of Future Club Autonomy?

This article originally appeared on

If you haven’t heard by now, Major League Soccer has a new identity. And, like almost anything involving MLS, it hasn’t come without controversy.
After an early morning announcement, fans flooded Twitter with their opinions on the league’s new logo, which is a basic crest that utilizes “adaptive colorways” for each league club. Some praised the bold—and certainly different— design as a departure from MLS’s current identity. Others bemoaned its minimalist lines and accused its designers of lacking panache and creativity. There is truth to both sides of the argument, but what is most important about MLS’s new branding is that it ushers in a new era for the league, an era where clubs are paramount and not subordinate to the league office.
MLS_crest_breakdownAllowing each club to have its own version of the MLS logo grants, at least symbolically, autonomy. This is what MLS needs: more focus on individual clubs and not reports about the constant machinations of the league office. No more “blind draws” to determine where the next Jermaine Jones plays. No more refusals to grant a player a six month contract (see the bungled attempt to sign Sacha Kljestan prior to the transfer deadline). Players and clubs should have the ultimate say in roster decisions, and this new logo signifies that MLS is ready to take the spotlight off of itself and cede more control to its member clubs, which is what fans have been clamoring for.
The old logo (that many are now clinging to) is dated and clunky. Personally, I hated the foot, which conveyed an archaic 90s aura reflective of MLS 1.0 and the league’s problematic early years. The new crest is an embodiment of what the league has been saying for the past few years and outlines the goals of the #MLSNEXT campaign: new teams, new markets, new media partnerships, new stadiums, and new stars. This is not the MLS of old.
Yes, the crest is a bit bland in and of itself, and yes, the large area of white deemed “second half” leaves a lot to be desired. The void could have easily been filled with a soccer ball, which, to me, is probably the biggest omission from the new logo. But overall, it’s fine as long as the league doesn’t screw it up. MLS CMO Howard Handler appeared to suggest (skip to 15:12 in the video below) during the unveiling that the space could be utilized for advertising space, which would inevitably (and understandably) elicit scorn from fans, myself included.

Regardless of the empty space and its eventual use, what makes the logo unique and wholly MLS is the variance of club colors and the club personality that the league has imbued into the logo with the distinct color schemes. By tweaking the logo’s color scheme to adhere to each club’s colors, MLS is loosening its autocratic hold on its clubs. The secession of  power might seem miniscule, but it is a the first step toward MLS becoming the league that many fans want: a league where clubs have the freedom to construct their squads as they see fit without the interference of a front office. Looking back, this new logo and MLS Next campaign may be the first step in a league that ditches single entity and becomes a global mainstay.

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Sunday, September 7, 2014

Beyond "I Believe": Football Infects America's Heartland

Northern Guard Supporters celebrate a goal at their home ground Cass Technical High School in downtown Detroit.
This story originally appeared on
They poured out of Harry’s Bar by the hundreds and filled the street, singing in full voice, waving flags, and holding scarves aloft. As the chanting and drumming got louder, several within the group threw smoke bombs onto the pavement and produced flares. Smoke enveloped the throng of bodies, but the singing continued unabated.
Marching toward the stadium, they yelled, “No one likes us…we don’t care!” Necks craned out of windows and over balconies to salute the group as they neared the stadium entrance. Once inside, the swarm greeted the visiting team outside of their locker room: “Can you hear Cleveland sing? We don’t hear a fucking thing!”
No, this isn’t Portland, Seattle, or any other football hotbed in the United States.
This is Detroit, Michigan, home of Detroit City FC (DCFC) and the Northern Guard Supporters (NGS), who follow their club in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), the fourth tier of the U.S. Soccer pyramid. “I do this because of forty years of pent up soccer love,” NGS member Gene Butcher told Eight by Eight. “We are loud, and we never shut up. Ever!”
The city that was once the undisputed world capital of the automotive industry is now helping to show the world that America is indeed a footballing nation. In just two years, the Motor City club and its supporters group have made a name for themselves within American soccer circles for their unabashed, tireless, and rapid support. “You are actually a part of something special,” said Butcher.“We do not care….[that] we are in the fourth tier. We love the club.”
As the mainstream media debates whether football has finally made it in America, NGS, along with groups around the country, are illustrating that American support for football is more diffuse than many thought.
As if continuing their childhood routine of watching Saturday morning cartoons, many fans across the country wake up at the crack of dawn each weekend to find a bar showing their favorite foreign teams. They then eagerly don the colors of their local clubs and head down to the stadium to support domestic clubs from Major League Soccer to local amateur sides.
Just as NGS is raising the bar for fanaticism in the Midwest, the Chattahooligans are helping define football culture in another unlikely place: Chattanooga, Tennessee, deep in the heart of SEC country.
Compared to the NGS, the Chattahooligans support is rated PG. You won’t find any flares or smoke bombs, but you will find the same unwavering support for the game, their club Chattanooga FC, their community, and a twenty foot tall effigy of their goalkeeper in their section.
“We continually set the atmosphere so the fans have fun and the players perform, but Chattanooga is a southern city so we have to be family friendly to be acceptable,” explained Galen Riley, a member of the Chattahooligans.
The club, competing in the NPSL like DCFC, has ranked near the top of the league’s attendance table since their founding in 2009. Chattanooga drew a league record 8,878 fans to their playoff semifinal victory over the Sacramento Gold on July 26th. The Chattahooligans are a huge part of the club’s success at drawing in fans.
Meanwhile, the club has been instrumental in giving football fans a platform to express their support. “Prior to CFC there wasn’t any professional team here, nor is there a major university. Chattanooga was hungry for something to call their own, and CFC filled that need,” explained CFC General Manger Sean McDaniel  “Word on what we’re doing is trickling out nationally; this is only fostering growth in other communities. We want to share that knowledge to grow the game sustainably at all levels.”
This is not to say that all supporters find lower division football compelling. Some fans do not even find MLS worth their time, let alone a 4th division NPSL side.
That has largely been what the both the NGS and the Chattahooligans have experienced when dealing with fans who prefer European leagues and their local American Outlaws chapters. For instance, the American Outlaws chapter of Chattanooga rarely attends NPSL league games. “I have only ever seen one or two at CFC matches,” said Riley, “And they weren’t even in the Chattahooligan’s section.”
Regardless of the differences in taste between the fans, it is apparent that the supporter’s culture within the United States isn’t entirely product of the USMNT success at this year’s World Cup. The supporters have been here. It is only the spotlight that is now cast upon them that has changed and become more amplified.
“The group existed before the club even had a roster,” explained NGS supporter Butcher. “Being a part of the Northern Guard and supporting DCFC provides all of us with a group of friends, a sense of family and community that I doubt exists elsewhere.”

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I'd like to thank the folks at Chattanooga FC and the Chattahooligans for their time. Thank you to Galen Riley, Tim Kelly, and Sean McDaniel. I'd also like to thank Gene Butcher and the Northern Guard Supporters for their input. As always, a tip of the cap to the great people at 8by8 for allowing me to contribute to their website.