JOHN RIORDAN: US soccer facing a major battle for acceptance

Not for the first time, I’m holding my hand up to acknowledge that America is chipping away at what I used to hold dear.

There was once a fella who looked like me with a little more hair — this is almost 10 years back — and he would spend monthly Friday evenings with buddies who also liked to fill the time before kick-off at Turner’s Cross by selling FourFiveOne fanzines on the Curragh Road.

I was angry about football and driven to tell the carefree Premier League what it could do with its overpriced sanitised version of a game they’d branded beyond all recognition.

We were upset at the lapdogs who couldn’t get enough of that admittedly exciting scam and the cheaply printed 24-pager we sold for €1 was our noble attempt to add a Cork twang to the left wing of the game.

There were a few too many late nights spent sweating over the layout way past deadline, railing at everything we saw as threatening to our vision of football and telling bad jokes well enough to sell almost every issue to the hardcore Cork City supporters and others.

Of course the irony was that Pat Dolan had barged onto the scene he himself branded the Cork Riviera and helped push the sudden notion that ours was a “Rebel Army”.

That former version of me frowned and rolled his eyes during a Monday conversation about sport when I found myself observing that Major League Soccer was doing a great job of promoting itself even though the brand was being flaunted far above the level of the product itself.

The standard of football does indeed remain as bad as it has been over the last few years but no amount of social media nous could possibly offer any bounce to the national interest in the sport’s main decider of the domestic season this weekend.

MLS Cup honours will be competed for by Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake and, let’s be honest, you’d be hard pressed to nightmare up a less enticing pair of opponents. And yet, the MLS marketing machine has no choice but to fire on all cylinders, probably aware of this lost battle but revelling in the concocted sideshows.

The brand battle is a lost cause at this time of year. The NFL is cranking up this month with the play-off looming after Christmas. It’s not a vintage year but there are enough levels of intrigue to make Major League Soccer’s task all the more mountainous.

But where the MLS should really throw in the towel is a vertiginous cliff provided by the drama of College Football.

Last Saturday, a miracle happened and nothing short of it. It involved two of the game’s greatest brands. There had to have been a time when the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Auburn Tigers sounded like gimmicks with their odd nicknames. But then fast forward to November 2013, the 79th Iron Bowl (like another brand called the Old Firm, only non-sectarian) ends with a missed Alabama field goal that somehow flutters into the hands of a waiting Auburn returner, Chris Davis. Time is up but it’s not really up until the ball goes out of play. And Davis runs it 109 yards to the opposite end zone, out of play and into the hearts of countless Auburn fanatics.

It was the biggest game in a generation and the most worked up Auburn crowd in living memory. As a friend commented on Monday, if you were to wear a tin hat when it comes to sport, that impossible ending would be exhibit A in the conspiracy theory.

Of course, the popularity and overall structure of the MLS is going in the right direction and it might seem difficult to accept now but their struggles to build the brand must be taken into context with Fifa as a whole, an organisation which hovers closer and closer to self-parody every time it comes up for air.

The MLS Cup will take place a day after the World Cup draw in the Brazilian resort of Costa do Sauipe, a swanky district in the state of Bahia which seems like a very Fifainterpretation of what the game means to real people.

“The whole show is inspired by the official slogan of Brazil 2014: All in One Rhythm,” we’re being told by Fifa’s brand experts. “It is based on the five pillars — cohesive society, power of innovation, striking nature, living football and land of happiness — representing the essence of Brazil.”

It’s jargon like that which does the Trojan workers at Major League Soccer no favours.

* Twitter: @JohnWRiordan


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