Soccer in the United States has a tortured history.
It has existed in the country for over a century, although many fans have latched on to the sport in the past 10 years. In that time, Major League Soccer has doubled in size, and worked with the United States Soccer Federation to take advantage of the most sustained-successful period in the history of the National Team.
In the North American sports landscape, that has created an interesting dynamic.
For every other of the "Big Four" leagues, the growth period phase happened decades ago, allowing precedent and a large amount of history for expansion teams to draw upon.
In baseball, and hockey the growth phase happened in the mid-to-late 1960s, while basketball grew rapidly in the 1970s with the collapse of American Basketball Association. In all of these cases economic boom of the 1990s brought more franchises, who could draw upon the success and failures of those who entered their leagues before them.
For Major League Soccer the league is now divided in half: franchises that have existed since 1998 and 10 that formed in the post-2005 era. In many of these older franchises, the fanbase is now very different from that which trekked out to see MLS' early seasons.
MLS prides itself on its aggressive use of social media and ability to connect with its fans. It is support channels like these that have allowed upstart franchises to become so popular so fast, and helped grow attendance at a breakneck pace from the early 2000s.
I fit into MLS' target demographic. I am a young, 23 year old (white) male, who spends most of his day on the internet interested in quick, shareable content. I have a vested, deep interest in one of their franchises, and love a good contest that gives out a scarf (hint, hint, MLS and USL). I write for a living on another website, and enjoy thinking critically about sports.
In some ways, this makes me a great candidate to write about MLS teams. But in reality it makes me a horrible fit to write about this sport.
When writing, context is everything. I've been a fan and follower of the Red Bulls for only a few years now (please stay with me here), but before I approach any piece, I make sure to hammer the other OaM writers with questions. While I am annoying, without any context there is no point to writing a piece about the Red Bulls. The team has existed for 20 years and had every conceivable thing happen to them, yet the team manages to still shock and awe its supporters.
Lucky for me, websites such as MetroFanatic have done a great job of writing down the history of this franchise, through the eyes of its earliest supporters.
For MLS to continue to grow and prosper it is going to need to bring in casual and new fans constantly. This normally would not be an issue, but MLS is still young, and lacks a deep-rooted independent media.
In America, the era in which the sportswriter was the shepherd of information to the fan, still looms in the back of many's minds. Being a journalist was once a noble profession, and not something you did for free on the internet to get twitter followers. The greats in each sport, were actually great, because they knew how to convey a deeper meaning of the sport to make it seem larger than life.
MLS does not have much of that, mostly because its independent media is currently trying to find itself. RBNY might be an exception, in that it does have a long-standing group of beat reporters who cover the team from outside the control of the league's primary source of media coverage: itself.
But not all MLS teams (20 years after the league was formed) have beat writers at major print and online outlets within their market. Most news comes from the MLS and team websites (which are run through MLS), and the single-entity status of the league does not do much for transparency.
MLS also lacks a major unifying voice for both hardcore and casual fans to turn to for breaking news and transactions. There is no Adrian Wojnarowski, Marc Stein, Bob McKenzie, Darren Dreger, Adam Schefter, or Ken Rosenthal for fans to get their news from.
Fans are receptive to media, and when the media is being fed stories by the league it can cause an issue. That's not to say the work that MLS and their team sites do is bad, actually far from it. Nor is MLS exceptional in trying to control its message: any institution or individual courting media attention tries to do so on its terms. But when the league is managing its message and those who are supposed to interpret that message...it can get incredibly awkward, when a writer tries to do, well, their job.
In the relationship between fans and media, the league can only do so much. Stories that push the agenda of the league get more play, and those who want coveted spots in the Press Box on game day follow those stories as well. It leads to writers competing to write the best about a topic where the nuance may not be fully understood by the writer and their editor finishing the piece.
Older fans may feel slighted at pieces that seem to willingly ignore context, because why would the media start paying attention to them now when they raised hell for 20 years trying to get their stories heard? It's an understandable position, and makes covering this sport very hard if you haven't lived through the development of the league.
This dynamic is playing out in real time on Social Media, which could lead to media members not pursuing the stories MLS fans have craved to hear. For many years those fans didn't have a voice. They were seen as following a second-class sport, and those who loved MLS did not get respect from other soccer-fans who "watched better leagues" such as the Premier League or La Liga. Fans can only take so much disrespect before they start fighting back to defend themselves at all costs.
For newer fans of teams in the Big 4 sports, their history isn't playing out in real time. It's very accessible online and part of a shared lore that has been uploaded to the information super highway. For decades the news that helped define the league did not happen in the age of Twitter, which led to less disagreements about the importance of their lore.
Do you think new Rangers fans who chant "Potvin Sucks!" are going to stop after a few #WellActually's from fans that know the context, are thrown their way? No. They are going to embrace the tradition because it came out of a time when fans weren't arguing 24/7 on a platform about how to be a fan.
MLS is at a crossroads. It will keep growing and developing, no matter how certain fans feel about it. The gap between old and new is going to continue to widen, as the league becomes more and more popular. Growing is a good thing for MLS, but for the time being, the league is going to be hard to cover.