Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Rose, By Any Other Name, Would Smell As Sweet

I'm back! I know, I know, you can hardly contain yourselves. You've missed my incredible wit and such snarky classics as "The Premiership Best Hair Side" and recurring posts like "Great Moments in US Men's National Team History." Well, rest assured said posts are forthcoming and we have a first half of Premiership drama to dissect along with a January transfer window in the throes of insane wheeling and dealing. But...

For now, it's time to focus a little on my adopted hometown and the massive soccer (football) week that is currently unfolding in The Circle City. For those of you not in the know, and that includes an alarming number Circle City residents, The Circle City is none other than Indianapolis, Indiana. Why The Circle City? Well, there's a monument in Indianapolis located smack dab in the middle of downtown Indianapolis and that monument is further located smack dab in the middle of a roundabout which, I'm sure you've guessed, is circular in shape. Is there another kind? Clever, no?

The MLS Super Draft took place earlier today in downtown Indy and the NSCAA convention is in full swing right beside it. These are great events for the city to host, but for Indy residents they don't mean much substantively beyond the week in which they're held. National soccer figures descend upon the city, some college kids go pro, patterns of play and innovative training methodologies are discussed, our bars wind up a few kegs lighter, and everyone goes home.

What does mean quite a lot for the city beyond this week and what has Indianapolis soccer fanatics firing back and forth with one another on the interwebs is the announcement of a new Indianapolis professional soccer team that will begin play in the NASL in 2014. Halle-freakin-lujah! Many of us, myself included, have already reserved our season tickets and are temporarily ignoring the fact that it's the middle of winter with only Dr. King Day to look forward to before we see the sun again or anything green and leafy that we're not eating in a restaurant.

There are plenty of questions yet to be answered surrounding the new team. Where will they play beyond a temporary set up on the campus of IUPUI? Who will be the coach? How many homegrown players will the side field? Am I too old to entertain the idea of trying out and, in a Disney-like feel good dream, make the team and lead it to glory? ...Or even just sit on the bench and get to wear the uniform?

All of those are questions that will be answered in time. Well, maybe not the last two. I'm pretty sure those were answerable as soon as I finished typing them. *Sigh*

The question that is probably most pressing and least functionally important is what this new team will be called. The sheer cacophony of opinion that currently surrounds this discussion is overwhelming and, frankly, scares the hell out of me.

"C'mon. Scares the hell out of you," you say?

"Hyperbole much," you continue?

Yes, scares the hell out of me, but maybe not for the reasons you would guess. From where I sit, and I know it's been said so many times before that it's a cliche, soccer in this country is at a tipping point. Granted, that tipping point isn't exactly the tiny point on a fulcrum it's been made out to be before. It's actually more like a gently sloping, wide curve that isn't terribly efficient and has taken some time to move soccer culture in this country from where it was before to where it will be Tomorrow (capital T), but it's a tipping point nonetheless.

On either side of that wide, sloping tipping point I see two distinct approaches to soccer in the US, broadly speaking, and I see both of those sides already staking their claim to Indianapolis' new NASL team.

My apologies while I generalize for a moment. Obviously there are gray areas and inconsistencies here, but I'm not dealing with one or two standard deviations from the middle (ie, now). I'm dealing with what has defined soccer culture in the United State and what will define said soccer culture in the future.

Side One: The Past

Side one is the soccer I cut my youth team teeth on. Side one did not show soccer on television, save for the World Cup every four years and a little blip in the 70s and 80s that was more of a curiosity than an actual cultural sea change. Side one did not have the internet beaming immediate transfer news and match results from the best leagues in Europe. Side one did not have many American players plying their trade overseas, and when it did it didn't have the TV and internet infrastructure I just mentioned to allow American fans to follow their heroes in real time. Side one did not have, even in major US cities let alone places like Indianapolis, soccer specific bars like The Chatham Tap in which one could find knowledgeable, passionate American fans supporting their favorite foreign teams.

Side one was defined by suburban white kids playing soccer on relatively manicured fields. They got orange slices and Hi-C at half time. Their coaches were their parents and those coaches literally read Soccer For Dummies on the touchline during the match. Many of those kids stopped playing at 14 or 15 so they could focus on their "real" sport. Those that didn't played for pay-to-play select teams with ridiculous names like Houston Texans Elite Red West and Chicago Magic PSG NPL '98. Even the rules were different; descending clocks, timeouts, 35 yard shootouts, unlimited substitutions.

I'm not saying that any of this was unimportant or even inherently bad, but those kids have grown up and had kids of their own and soccer is no longer exclusively the pearly white, everybody-gets-a-trophy    sport it has been in the United States. Side one is shrinking.

Which leads us to...

Side Two: The Future

Side two is comprised of people who grew up playing soccer and continued to play up to and through college. Side two wakes up at 6AM to be at the bar to claim a spot for themselves and their friends before it fills up for the 2PM USA v England World Cup 2010 match. Side two supports a team (at this point probably still a European team) religiously and is well versed in all the club politics and personalities. Side two is probably 40 and under and still plays on as many indoor and outdoor teams as their creaking knees and swollen ankles will allow. Side two jokes about parents who used to yell "Boot it!" during their youth games, has a child of his own, and can explain to him how and why an outside midfielder should be as wide as possible in a 3-5-2  when the ball is near the opposite touchline. Side two can't imagine what life would be like without soccer, bleeds for the national team, knows what "El Tri" means, and hates them with every fiber of their being.

Side two applauds the creation of MLS academy teams and hopes more clubs will invest more money in order to diminish the effects of pay-to-play. Side two probably sees college soccer as a waning if not dying influence in the development of future American talent. Side two is growing.

I'm not one of those people who thinks soccer in this country is just five or ten years away from ruling the realm Lord of The Rings style. I will say, however, that as baseball, hockey, and to a certain extent basketball, continue to screw themselves up, more and more space is being created in the public sporting sphere for the United States to embrace soccer as a domestic passion. Add to that the number of kids who are all grown up and not only played growing up but played nothing else and were actually really freaking good at it and are having kids of their own, and you've got an emerging and uniquely American soccer culture that is becoming a significant enough force that a city like Indianapolis can announce the formation of a pro team and do so to much fanfare and excitement.

This is where my barometer for the degree to which the fulcrum is tilting kicks in. Essentially, what's in a name? The fact of the matter is, Indianapolis, home of the pork tenderloin and Plump's last shot,  has a professional soccer team and, regardless what it's called, all Indiana soccer fans should rejoice. However, what this team is called places it firmly in the balance between Kansas City Wizards and Sporting KC. Between Dallas Burn and FC Dallas. Between Soccer moms and Side One and the ownership of passionate soccer fans and Side Two. The fulcrum is tipping. But how far has it tipped? What will this team be called?

On the website under the entry "Name The Team" there seems to be clear reason for fear.

A Sampling:

Circle City Stealth

I'm pretty sure those are all either U-10 team names or WNBA team names.

Ideally, the team would quietly form and organically decide on a name and climb the ranks of the leagues and eventually be a MLS side, but this is professional sports in the 21st century and those sorts of things just don't happen anymore. A little less than ideally, the franchise could adopt a name that reflects the unique history of Indiana and/or Indianapolis and conform to some of the conventions of traditional soccer club names without pandering to their European roots. Racing Indianapolis seems a tailor made fit, but apparently the Indy Racing League (people who drive fast and turn left) have killed that possibility.

My modest suggestions would be Indiana 1816 and White Star Indianapolis (You know, the whole city flag thing). When it comes down to it though, I'm just ecstatic that my hometown is entering the ranks of American professional soccer cities. Maybe "scared as hell" was hyperbole.

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