Seen and Not Seen: Do MLS Teams Have a Personality Disorder?

MLS Teams
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It may be that I am too close to it. It may be that if I were in, say Seattle, or Toronto or Houston or Los Angeles I would have a different opinion. But in September, when I watched the final regular season Hudson River Derby of 2017, I found myself thinking about the natures of these two teams. About how very different they are. And I began to wonder if there are any two teams in MLS with as distinct personalities as NYCFC and the New York Red Bulls.

Seen and Not Seen: Do MLS Teams Have a Personality Disorder?

Now, there are many ways a team can have a personality. Look only at other sports for examples. Compare the black hat aura of the Oakland Raiders and with the clean cut good guy Los Angeles Dodgers. Or the Detroit Pistons of the Isaiah Thomas and Bill Lambeer years and the New York Yankees. Hell, look at the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers that ESPN has been celebrating on 30 for 30 “Best of Enemies.” Teams can be “working class, lunch pail” like Bill Parcells’ New York Giants. Teams can be “the greatest show on turf” like the Super Bowl-winning St. Louis Rams. They can be everything from the lovable losers that defined the Chicago Cubs for a century, or the “America’s Team” of the 1970s Dallas Cowboys or the Bash Brothers of the Oakland Athletics or the Broad Street Bullies of Philadelphia Flyers fame. The options are as broad as one’s imagination.

And yet MLS has struggled in this area. For even as the quality of play improves on the pitch, even as the level of player joining the league elevates, and even as the attendance and viewership has grown, the teams themselves don’t seem to have personalities. At least, not personalities that are greater than their star players. Is Toronto FC more than Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco? Seattle more than Clint Dempsey? Vancouver more than, um, who plays on Vancouver again?

But NYCFC and the Red Bulls?

And I don’t just mean in terms of each other. For there are other great rivalries in MLS. The Timbers and Sounders have had nearly 100 matches. And the battles between Montreal and Toronto are as much about the issues that have torn Canada apart for centuries as they are about a ball on a pitch.

But a real personality exists regardless of the competition. And I’m not certain I see that in other teams. Are Portland the same Seattle-angry Timbers when they’re in Columbus? Are Montreal the same “Je Me Souviens” Impact when they’re playing the LA Galaxy?

NYCFC and the Red Bulls are. Love them or hate them, NYCFC are the same superior, holier-than-though, Euro-trash snobs in Houston that they are in Harrison. And the Red Bulls are the same scrappy, stab you in the front and still whine about the red card complainers whether they’re at Toyota Park or Toyota Field. And that’s because these teams have distinct personalities.

With NYCFC you have a team that is clearly in the mode of Manchester City, which is this: City believes that every player on their club should be the best in the world at their position. And if they are not, they will scour the planet to find the person who is. Sorry, Edin Dzeko, you’re not working out. Hello Kevin DeBruyne. Manuel Pellegrini, thank you for the title, but you’re out. Why? Because Pep Guardiola. The list goes on. It’s crazy, yes, but they can do it because they have pockets deeper than the Marianas Trench and clearly a network that would make the KGB, the CIA and MI6 blush. It’s like Steinbrenner’s Yankees on steroids (no offense, Alex Rodriguez).

And NYCFC are, you will forgive the expression, the MLS version of that. Their pockets are not as deep as the mothership’s, but there is no corner of the globe they will not go to to bring in a quality player. It’s not that they don’t like local players, it’s just that they don’t think that way. So, hello Alex Ring, Alexander Callens, Maxi Moralez. Goodbye RJ Allen, Ethan White, Andrew Jacobson.

It’s not wrong. It’s just a specific way of looking at stocking and replenishing your squad, and it has pluses and minuses like any other. That impacts the culture in the clubhouse and among the fan base in 1,000 different ways.

The Red Bulls, of course, take a different view. Sure, sure, they don’t have the money that CFG has – who does? But the difference is more than money. It’s an attitude. There is a chip on the shoulder of every player on that side. It starts with their coach, Jesse Marsch and continues to his on-field amanuensis, Felipe. You saw it in Dax McCarty when he was their captain. And in Connor Lade and Alex Muyl and Sacha Kljestan. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing. An attitude. A perception that the world has done them wrong and to hell with it.

Am I projecting onto the Red Bulls the fact that New Jersey is the most litigious state in the Union? Perhaps. But do I think it’s a coincidence that the Red Bulls seem to seek out this kind of player, that they cultivate this kind of player, in much the same way that the Oakland Raiders sought out the misfit toys of the NFL? No, I do not.

Or let me put it this way; do you think Jack Harrison would be the same kind of player under Jesse Marsch that he is developing into under Patrick Vieira? And conversely, do you think Tyler Adams would be on the same track if he played his home matches in the Bronx instead of in Harrison?

My sense is no, in both cases, and that’s the mark of a team with a personality. Beyond skill, beyond whether you think fundamentally Marsch is a better or worse coach than Vieira. They would be different types of players because of the personalities of those teams. And I don’t think you would say that if i asked you the same question about those kids playing in Colorado, or Dallas or Minnesota or New England.

But so what? But so this: Personality is what endures.

Players come and go. Titles come and go. Fans and stadia and even clever writers who cover the team in the dark days of December come and go. But personality stays.

Personality is why people still wear Brooklyn Dodgers jerseys half a century after that team departed for the West Coast. Personality is why Johnny Manziel was never, ever gonna be a Cleveland Brown. Personality is why, of course Giancarlo Stanton wound up at the Yankees. Personality is why Larry Bird could no more have played for the Lakers than Magic Johnson could have played for the Celtics.

The exalted. The underdog. The black hats. The white hats. The good, the bad and the ugly. These are the things that tie us to a team year after year, generation after generation, parent to child to child’s child.

They are what binds us to a team. To a sport. To each other.

And it is something Commissioner Don Garber would be wise to remind himself of as he grows this league.

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