By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 30, 2013) US Soccer Players - Major League Soccer culture is just eighteen years old, which naturally prompts the question of whether enough time has passed to give MLS a culture at all. If you’re on the inside - be it playing, coaching, or supporting one of the 19 member clubs of various ages from the stands - there’s no doubt in your mind. MLS is old enough, and the stories of its teams rich enough, that a very evident “MLS culture” exists. And because that culture exists, it often inserts itself into the narratives of individual seasons, teams, or players.
Case in point: The trophy-less history of the New York Red Bulls franchise that came to an end on Sunday in New Jersey. “Eighteen years and no cups” was the refrain from rival fans each and every time the Red Bulls took the field this season. Replace “18” with the appropriate number of years going back in time and you have a picture of the futile image that clung to New York across the MLS landscape.
What’s interesting about the Red Bulls and their former plight is that it was a significant part of MLS culture in a way that filtered across the country to other MLS towns. For New York soccer fans, their team never winning was a hellish condition made worse by A) where the team is located (read: the largest media market in the country) and B) their status as one of the league’s original teams. For fans elsewhere and nonpartisans, New York history of underachieving was a quirk that made the league’s annual story of season after season more interesting.
Each new season began with the same questions about New York, always viewed through the prism of whatever off-season upheaval they endured the winter before.
New stadium: Can the Red Bulls finally win a trophy?
New coach: Can the Red Bulls win a trophy?
Big name signing: Can the Red Bulls finally win a trophy?
While it’s impossible to imagine that Red Bulls fans wouldn’t trade all of those gloryless seasons for a trophy - any trophy - years ago, the purgatory they suffered enriched the MLS narrative. Frankly, Major League Soccer and the tale of professional soccer in America is better because the Red Bulls - formerly the MetroStars, and cursed by Caricola all the way back in 1996 - existed for so long without tasting success. MLS suffers from a deficit of history when compared to its American sports competition, magnifying any wrinkle like the New York trophy drought.
It doesn’t matter that the “Curse of Caricola” was ridiculous to hang New York’s failures on. Red Bulls fans were as aware as anyone that the team coming up short year after year had nothing to do with an own goal scored by an aging Italian defender in the club’s first-ever game, but the myth fed a community’s appetite for a good story. The Cubs have that goat, and the Red Sox suffered for 86 years under the weight of the Bambino. Why shouldn’t MLS get in on the act?
No, MLS can’t compete with the longevity of baseball (or the NFL, NBA, or NHL, for that matter), but that’s only more reason to latch onto something like the New York “curse” and squeeze it hard as possible. MLS fans are still living through the first generation of a league we all hope will last for decades to come, and have to adjust accordingly. They don’t need dusty books and faded newsprint written by long dead sportswriting greats to tell them the stories of these clubs. They lived through those stories, nurtured them, and spread them to new recruits. No group of sports fans in this country - short of the invention of a new team sport that sweeps the nation - can claim that experience since the NBA came of age decades ago.
It shouldn’t need explaining why the experience of soccer fans in the US over the last 18 years has been so drastically different than that of basketball fans in an era that predated the proliferation of television. The advantages provided by living in the age of the internet is a speeding up of the myth-making process. But it also means cobbling together something resembling an authentic feeling of fandom amidst a sea of competing distractions.
“Tradition” is a function of generational turnover, sharing a set of stories down the line to those too young to have witnessed the origins. MLS fans are only just beginning that process with any real significance, romanticizing the events of the recent past. Which is fine, understandable, and preferable. Is there any doubt that those 17 seasons of bitterness made Sunday at Red Bull Arena all the sweeter?
So much of that achievement seemed “right” in that way that is so peculiar to sports. Rather than a foreign hired gun or veteran MLS coach on just another stop, the man on the sidelines for the Red Bulls was a local who spent nearly ten seasons of his own playing career striving to bring club a trophy. New York also lifted the Supporters Shield at their own purpose-built building, a shiny modern edifice finally erected after years of stop-start efforts and full the brim with their fans. The Red Bulls exorcised the ghosts of Giants Stadium. That horrible, no-good-for-soccer, mausoleum of a place that played host to so many painful memories including Caricola’s gaff. They also did it in style.
The story of the 2013 New York Red Bulls builds on layers of history collected over 17 years. That’s true of teams across the league, in cities across the United States and Canada. Now that New York’s curse is broken, perhaps some other club will step into the void as the team bitten by history. Or maybe the MLS community will move on to write entirely new narratives that feed an insatiable need to divine patterns from a short history already rich with potential.
More From Jason Davis: