The Wins Column: MLS Brand War is Over

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Back around 2007, when I first became a follower of Major League Soccer, the bulk of the league’s advertising was focus around the tagline “Football. Fùtbol. Soccer.” It made sense back in the day. The league was still (okay, more so than today) trying to gain footing in the professional sports landscape and was trying to use a global appeal. For each of those respective titles there was a face: David Beckham for football, Cuauhtémoc Blanco for fùtbol, and Landon Donovan for soccer. Back then, the MLS Brand War was more of a brand truce, using the appeal of a global game to cover up indecisiveness and a lack of direction.

Flash forward seven years later. Each of those three faces are gone (Donovan is retiring at season’s end). For each of the beautiful game’s titles, a new face has come and gone. On the New York Red Bulls alone, Thierry Henry (likely done after this year), Rafael Márquez, and, dare I say it, Tim Cahill, could all have come and gone by the time 2015 rolls around. By that time, Robbie Keane, Kaká, and Clint Dempsey will have likely assumed the face of the league roles for each title.

These days there are more players than ever who could put up a fight in the “face of the league” argument. But today’s stars have a tougher fight on their hands than the stars of years past, because all signs now point to Major League Soccer finally tearing up the brand truce. Football and fùtbol are slowly being phased out. Soccer is here to stay.

When MLS unveiled their new logo a month ago, there was never any real chance of the league changing their name. For all those fans who want to see America’s top professional soccer league be known as the NASL like it was in the 70s, there’s a little thing called copyright infringement currently preventing that from happening. But if MLS ever does decide to be affiliated, or merge with, or purchase, the second-division NASL, the argument might be re-opened.

And if there were any of you who though the league might change their name to “Major League Football” or “MLF”, try saying that acronym as one word. Remind you of something? Yeah, the folks who run MLS have seen American Pie before as well. That option was thrown off the table fifteen years ago.

So Major League Soccer will continue on. And fittingly these days, the league is also home to more “soccer” clubs.

Orlando City is a “Soccer Club”. The Columbus Crew are now a “Soccer Club”. The Chicago Fire refer to themselves as a “Soccer Club”. Sure, there are a lot of “Football Clubs” still around, but part of that can be attributed to the costs of rebranding and the potentially dangerous effects of a switch. There are also a lot of neutrals, the Uniteds, Sportings, and Reals, but the vibe that I get from them all is that they lean more to the “Soccer” side of the spectrum.

As the league now expresses in one of their newer taglines, “This is Soccer.” Not football, or fùtbol, or boring as some North Americans address it. It may be the world’s game, but MLS represent its North American facet.

I’m not here to say that tradition is being completely discarded. I’ve seen some footage of the old shootout system used to break games that ended in ties. It was pretty dumb. Deciding not to play with draws during regular league games is in my mind equivalent to the NBA deciding to play with them. It just doesn’t make sense.

But again, those days are long gone. Our soccer is a rose by another name. It’s just that now we’ve actually decided on one name and are moving forward with that name very clearly in mind.

When Kaká comes over, he won’t start calling the sport soccer. Thierry Henry is well-respected for not saying “the MLS”, but even he doesn’t call the sport soccer. The thought of calling the sport soccer probably never entered David Beckham’s mind. You can’t teach old dogs new tricks. But at least for us young-gun North Americans, it will continue to be soccer.

And why change? Is it really that criminal to not call it football? And if we did start calling it football, the NFL would file a lawsuit by the time you counted to ten. With Chivas appearing to be on the way out, Orlando is arguably the club most representative of the Central and South American population, but even they aren’t saying fùtbol.

I would be happy to call it football, but the fact of the matter is that in North America, football means American football to roughly 99 per cent of the population. I’ll call our sport football when I’m around my fellow one-percenters. But for everyday speak, it’s soccer.

Being a part of everyday conversation is where soccer in North America ultimately wants to be. It wants to inject new life into what has been a long-standing “big four” of North American professional sports.

It’s coming close. It isn’t there yet. But it’s close, despite what some people (Tony Kornheiser comes to mind, especially after his remarks about the Jurgen Klinsmann-Don Garber war of words) think.

And maybe now that we actually know what to call this sport on the rise, it might be able to gain just a little more ground.

Or footing. Or traction. Or turf.

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