‘Endline’ is a weekly column in which David Martin surveys the NASL landscape for a topic of interest and fires a broadside of opinion. The content below reflects the opinion of the author alone and not that of Midfield Press or other individual staff.
The best soccer in the world is currently being played in Spain. Barcelona secured the treble this year and boasts more talent in its attack led by Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar than perhaps any other club that has ever existed. Real Madrid is considered to have had a terrible year despite making it to the Champions League semifinal and typically steamrolling its league competition. These two teams are fun to watch, creative, speedy, and inspiring. Bayern Munich may be the only other team in the world that can claim the consistent skill and dominance of what is happening at the top of La Liga.
And La Liga sucks.
I hate watching about 97% of La Liga games. Watching any other two teams play each other feels pointless; all that is left to them is scraps and the outcome is always inconsequential. Watching either of the top two teams play any other La Liga team is just rooting for the bully to pummel the nerd. I don’t fault anyone who supports the two teams; they are incredible talents. But what fun is there if there are no stakes, what fun is there if there is no mystery?
Following NASL is much more enjoyable to me. Each game has a certain weight to it, the nagging anxiety that anything could happen. My hometown Minnesota United FC were dominant in 2014, but there was always the chance that we could be outdone by any team. Ultimately we had a slow end to the regular season and crashed out of the semifinals to a team that, if one relies on Günter Kronsteiner’s words, was among the least well-heeled teams in the league. Parity indeed.
This year I have begun to write about the league in depth and follow each game closely. I watched table-toppers Tampa Bay lose to cellar-dwellers San Antonio (who had been champions just last year). I watched Edmonton lose 3-0, win 4-0, and tie 1-1 in successive games. I watched United play their worst game of the year against Carolina, followed by a gut-wrenching draw, followed by its best game of the year against Jacksonville. The Spring Season ended with only three points separating the third place team from the third worst team in the table. Most perplexing, the unimpeachable Midfield Press staff is a combined 19 for 65 in fall predictions, slightly worse than if we had all just selected results at random from a hat.
So is the league just random? Is there too much parity?
The answer depends on what exactly your target is. For me, the right level of parity is a competition which rewards clever recruiting, strong training, great coaching, and yes, robust spending, while never guaranteeing success for any of these factors. A team which is well-run should beat more poorly-run teams most of the time. But incredible, inspired one-off performances and more nebulous factors like “luck” or “clutch” should be on the table, right? If not for those, where would our tear-jerker sports movies come from? Even if they are cliché, we still like to watch the Little Giants beat the Dallas Cowboys sometimes, don’t we? Who would want to watch a movie in which an unstoppable force succeeds in being unstoppable and pats itself on the back for it? We have that. It was called United Passions. It made $1,000.
But if it’s basically a flip of the coin whether Rudy is going to tackle the quarterback on the next play, then it isn’t quite so special. So that sweet spot has to be the enjoyment of watching a great team be great with the thrill of knowing that on any given day it might not be enough.
The counterargument may be that if parity were somehow enforced in, say, La Liga, that Barcelona and Real Madrid could never be the great teams that they are. They could never stockpile the talent that they have. They would not be able to compete with the top clubs in Europe that did not enforce such hand holding among its lesser teams. We saw that in the early ’90s with the development of the EPL. England suffered in Europe, and part of the reason was that the top teams shared too much among the pretenders. The development of the EPL allowed those best teams to grow in unprecedented ways. Where European competition was concerned, it worked.
It’s a fair point, but not one I’m too interested in. If you need the aesthetic of superclubs (and really, they do play some incredible soccer), let them pull themselves together into a Super League. Week in and week out they can play meaningful, challenging games rather than toiling each weekend to prove that money is all that matters against smaller teams.
Because for me, I like my club for more reasons than their talent on the field. I like my club’s aesthetic – the crest, the gear, all of it. I like my club’s supporters group. They don’t make the same noise as European supporters groups, but they do a weird thing a weird way, they have a charitable focus, and they emphasize inclusion in their gameday experience. It suits me. The front office is interactive and accessible, as are the players. The club itself has taken vocal stances on social issues I support, and are willing to make significant private investment to put a stadium in underdeveloped areas of my community rather than relying too much on taxpayers. I love this club, and would support it no matter what. It would really suck to support them in the hopes that each year they might earn as high as third place behind two global brands run by oil tycoons. Give me a competition on an island, against like competitors, and let me just soak up the sun on that little island; the most beautiful islands are the ones no one knows about yet anyway, right?
But is NASL too random? Is there true competition or is it mostly a string of lucky bounces passing as results? I don’t think so. New York rides the top of the table and have been the league’s most consistent club. Yet we have seen, against Indy or against Jacksonville or against Minnesota, that they need to work hard to earn every point. Tampa Bay looks good from front to back but is fallible. Minnesota can dominate a game and still not win it. On the other end, Jacksonville can put on a good show but ultimately the table still shows they are an expansion side with a poor defense. Atlanta can surprise but generally have performed poorly (but, importantly, key investments in player signings in the last two weeks might be enough to turn the tide for them). The middle table teams do what middle table teams do; either they are mediocre or, like Edmonton, they have no idea whether they are good or bad.
There is a lot more to competition than watching the bullies punch the nerds. If that’s your thing, enjoy. I’m not suggesting anyone make any changes to enforce parity overseas. But as for me, I’m having a pretty damn good time watching NASL. I think my team has a chance this fall. And the suspense is killing me.