“Imagination, however high it flies,
Falls short, however hard it tries.
But spirits fit to see deeply invest
In what is boundless a boundless trust.”
― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, Part Two
Major League Soccer is like that guy that always talks about himself in the third person. It has a marketing department that covers itself as newsworthy and it has corporate sponsors that jump all over supporter culture with great ideas like “The Fabric of Seattle” and “Heineken Rivalry Week.”
This shouldn’t be a surprise from a league that pretends it’s basically like other leagues, with teams and such competing for trophies. In fact, as we know, the league owns the teams, the players are signed to a central contract and the trophy that actually makes it like a proper league – The Supporters Shield – was actually fan created. Plastic league, plastic teams, plastic grass?
This weekend, the curtain came down a bit more with news of Antonio Conte’s snubbing of MLS. When asked why he did not pick Sebastian Giovinco for Italy, he said “when you choose to play in MLS you must face the consequences.” This twisted the knickers of dozens of MLS commentators who can’t believe we got so off message.
This came hard on the heels of a “Heineken Rivalry Week” that featured a 0-7 drubbing in a year-old derby and something of a supporters’ flare up that mimicked a spirited conversation about handbags. It also featured a proper 40 year old Cascadia derby that seemed to retain its character despite the best efforts of the referee. I love it when the best laid plans fall to pieces.
You see, football is unpredictable. Despite what the MLS experience makers want you to believe, there is enough unpredictability in football that whatever happens on the pitch (and sometimes off it) is sure to upset the narrative. And that unpredictability is one of the great comforts supporters take in being betrothed to this league. That guy at the office always gets his comeuppance.
Faust is such a perfect character to embody the life of a supporter of a MLS team. Faust knows exactly what he is doing when he makes his deal with the devil – indeed this is the pernicious nature of such agreements. One goes in with eyes wide open, judges the bargain to worth it and shakes hands. It is what it is.
A part of being a supporter of a MLS team is laughing off how stupid the league is from time to time, although to be fair, this isn’t uncommon amongst English Premier League fans either, whose experience is becoming just as controlled, contrived and commodified as ours is. This league engages in novel eyerolling cringeworthiness as a modus operandi and all one can do is laugh. We’re not here for the league.
The truth is that all North American sports leagues are organized the way MLS is. The teams are franchises. The marketing departments are the tip of a massive misinformation iceberg. There are cover-ups about concussions, steroids, domestic violence and suicides. Occasionally the curtain falls away and a strike, lockout or antitrust suit rears its head and all the romance goes off the product. We get played for suckers, and we go back for more.
But why do we do it?
The trade off is that there are enough glimmers of authenticity in this situation to make it worthwhile.
Chasing an authentic experience is really really hard in North American culture where everything that is offered to you is commodified, owned, fenced in and controlled. Authenticity lives for short times at the margins of the culture, until someone finds a way to make a buck off it. But despite that, this is one of the reasons why sports is so interesting. Inside the elegant wrapper of marketing machines gone made is a simple game in which the outcome is unpredictable, and the emotional commitment is palpable. It is the ultimate reality show.
Most supporters will tell you that they do it because of the players. In front of us week after week are guys that have devoted their lives to the craft. They have reduced their life’s pursuit into a single talent, and they have sacrificed more than anyone to play the game they love. There is nothing contrived about their performance, nothing pre-determined or guaranteed. We produce tifo and sing and chant for the players, not for the front offices or the league.
The soccer is pretty good, certainly better than in most leagues in the world, and the structure of the league, so frustrating and ridiculous by world standards, at least ensures some parity. We might not have relegation battles, but every season we seem to have an equal chance to finish top or bottom, so we can have as much fretful anxiety as we like. At least 22,000 of us figure that it’s worth it to go, rather sit at home watching a La Liga mid table tilt.
The other thing we show up for is community, friendship and having a good time.
In most top pro leagues in North American sports, season ticket holders are corporate, tickets are given away or used by different people every game. There are too many games to see them all and so there is very little community in the stands, and very little connection between regulars. Not so in BC Place. No matter where you sit or stand, if you are a seasons ticket holder, you probably know many people around you and you come back year after year to the same group of faces and acquaintances.
The group of 25 of us in the upper reaches of 253 have nicknamed ourselves the Pigeon Casuals, just because it seemed like a fine idea to give a name to our loose little group of Southsiders. You become a member by showing up and getting hooked. We goof off, sing, wave flags, chirp each other, toss popcorn and basically carry on spirited buffoonery all the while watching and supporting our players.
Forget the Facebook debates, the keyboard shitlarking and the cynical detachment: we come to the park to sing and support and enjoy each other’s company. And we do it despite MLS, despite how stupid the league is, despite any issues we have with the front office. We do it because it is fun, the soccer is mostly pretty good and it’s a welcome distraction from whatever else is going on in our lives.
So many good Whitecaps fans have been alienated by the reality of the MLS model and once in a while another one drifts away, broken and bored and feeling taken advantage of. I get it, and to each their own. We live in times where it’s hard to turn up anywhere and not have that same experience of being marketed to. And so we pick our battles and pick our playgrounds. For me, standing amongst these regular Saturday friends gives me a good feeling of doing something fun together, marginally meaningful and different from the daily realities that consume the week.
We only do one thing well in the Pigeon Loft. We’re the world’s worst football casuals, standing behind the world’s worst tifo, singing for a great bunch of guys playing for a plastic brand in a pretend league. But so far we’re having a great time doing it.