Could Milwaukee Support a Pro Soccer Team?
How I came to embrace soccer and what it could mean for America and Milwaukee.
The closest thing I had to religion growing up was the Green Bay Packers. Sundays (and the occasional Monday night) were sacred. We studied the plays like scripture and discussed the sermon of our high priest, the head coach. I wrote poems about the Packers. During my childhood our savior was quarterback Brett Favre, the three-time MVP and Super Bowl champion.
I have yet to experience a more joyous and blessed day than January 26, 1997. When the confetti flew in New Orleans my friends and I ran outside to sing, dance and scream in the snowy streets of Milwaukee. Two days later my family was at Lambeau Field, bundled up in our winter gear for a glimpse of the Lombardi Trophy.
Needless to say, I wanted to be a quarterback. When I was eleven my parents signed me up for full-contact flag football. Wyrick Park, where we practiced, is where I like to think I became a man, or at least an emotionally damaged teenager tapping into an adult-like rage built on resentment and self-hatred.
Our coach was a retired Navy Seal, a tank of a man. He had the thickest thighs and the most massive chest I’d ever seen. To work our abdomen muscles he would lay us down in a row and run across our stomachs in his military boots. We were between eleven and fourteen.
The worst (or best, depending on your perspective) drill that we did involved forming a circle. One boy went in the middle and kept his head on a swivel. The rest of us sprinted in place. Our coach called out a number, which corresponded to a jersey, and that boy hit the kid in the middle as hard as he could.
I wasn’t a particularly strong kid. I was tall, skinny and somewhat slow. I hated my coach for working us so hard. I hated myself for being so weak and lead-footed. I burst into tears after a few practices. I didn’t play much. But I stuck with it. I was determined to be a quarterback.
Peewee football paralleled those rebellious middle school years when I was constantly fighting with my parents. Football provided a pressure valve. Before each game our coach gave the same basic pep talk.
“Whatever has been bothering you this week, whether it’s your teachers, your parents or your siblings, now is the time to take out your anger. Channel that energy and leave it all on the field.”
I felt privileged to have an outlet for my adolescent angst. But who were we taking it out on? The opposing team. Another gang of vulnerable, pubescent, confused, furious boys of varying shapes and sizes. There were a lot of sitting ducks and a lot of “unnecessary roughness.”
Full-contact flag is a far cry from flag football without pads and helmets. We were allowed to tackle opposing players as long as we came up with their flags. It was easy to fish for the flags after violently taking a kid down. Helmet-to-helmet hits were frowned upon, but they happened. Some of the worst collisions took place away from the ball and were never penalized, often cheered on by parents and friends in the stands.
By the last year of peewee I became the quarterback of my team, a position I maintained when I got to high school.
On September 10, 2001 I was playing quarterback for my high school’s junior varsity team. The center was a kid I’d never practiced with. It wasn’t long before we fumbled a snap. Instead of falling on the ball, like I was taught to do, I bent down to pick it up. The next thing I knew a very large defensive lineman was on top of me, folding my body in half. Everything changed that day…for my lower back.
I didn’t need a stretcher and an ambulance. I was carried onto the back seat of my parents car and taken to a walk-in clinic. I had some pinched discs and hyper-extended muscles. I needed rest and physical therapy.
When the first plane flew into the World Trade Center the next day I was stretched out on the couch, dozing off. My mom teaches at an elementary school where they weren’t allowed to turn on their TVs, so she frantically called me all morning for updates. Sometime around noon I grew tired of the non-stop news coverage. I tuned into Sweet November, a cheeseball romance starring Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron that was on Pay-Per-View. I watched it twice on 9/11. We can’t let the terrorists win, right?
My football season was over. On the second day of summer practice the next year I took a brutal hit that bruised my ribcage, even though I was wearing an extra flak jacket. At this point I was trying to shed my reputation as a jock. I was reading Noam Chomsky and auditioning for school plays, so I walked away from football.
In university I became more politically progressive and as a result, I began to resent football. I could barely bring myself to even watch the Packers. At the time I believed football represented so much of what was wrong with American society. I saw the linemen as the underpaid working-class, the skill players as the overpaid celebrities, the coaches as the overworked managers, and the owners as the greedy CEOs making insane profit off the worker’s labor. Not to mention, the start-and-stop nature of the game is perfectly suited for maximum commercial time.
I saw football as nothing more than another avenue for corporate America to sell us shit we didn’t need, like the War in Iraq.
It took a stint living in Europe and a bout of homesickness to bring me back to American football. Staying up late on Sunday nights watching the Packers made me feel closer to my family and friends. At the same time I was immersed in the original game of football, which we know as soccer.
The fact that I never got into soccer is a testament to the popularity of football in Wisconsin, because soccer is in my genes. My mom’s entire social world revolved around Milwaukee’s German soccer clubs. She was a player and a groupie. Her first kiss was on a bus heading to a boys tournament in Texas. She was an original member of the Women’s Soccer club, she continues to play and has been coaching high school for fifteen years. I have a couple fond memories of watching the 2002 World Cup with high school friends, but I never really played.
After university I got a six-month work visa for the United Kingdom and settled in Edinburgh, Scotland. My first job was in the ticket office at Easter Road, home of the Hibernian Football Club. Later I worked as a bartender in the suites. When my mom and brother came to visit we sat in the season ticket holder section at Easter Road, where the onslaught of cursing Scottish brogues may have been more entertaining than the action on the pitch. Later we shuffled through the streets of London with the West Ham United faithful to Boleyn Ground, which roared as loud (or louder) as any American stadium.
On Saturday nights I got into the habit of watching “Match of the Day,” an English Premier League review show whose minimal aesthetic and full-highlights offered a welcome break from the cluttered, loud, ADD-oriented “SportsCenter.”
My time in Europe led to a romance in Canada. I got a journalism degree in Montreal but struggled to find work. I never learned enough French to be employable. For almost two years I would work in the States for a few months at a time then return to Montreal to be with my girlfriend. When I was gearing up to move back in early 2012 I searched for potential feature stories. I needed something where language wouldn’t be a barrier. Sports, of course.
Shortly after moving to Montreal in the summer of 2010 my girlfriend took me to Olympic Stadium for a friendly match between the minor league Montreal Impact and Italian heavyweights AC Milan, featuring Brazilian legend Ronaldhino. To the dismay of the 47,000 (mostly) Italian-Canadians on hand, the Impact managed to score a goal. I was impressed. A month before the match it was announced that the Impact would be joining Major League Soccer (MLS) for the 2012 season. Voilà, a story.
MLS is by far the youngest and least visible of the “Big Five” North American professional sports organizations. It’s been an uphill battle for the league since starting play in 1996. There are already countless established and beloved soccer leagues around the world. A number of North American soccer leagues rose and fell throughout the 20th Century, but none have stuck like MLS.
I sat down with the Montreal Impact’s 2012 head coach Jesse Marsch, an MLS icon and Racine native. “I’m not kidding when I say there were days when I would think, ‘Are we gonna get a paycheck this week?’ By year six or seven it looked like the league might fold.” Marsch recounted.
The league has struggled to take hold in a handful of markets, but Montreal is ripe for the game. The capital of French-Canadian culture might be the birthplace of ice hockey and the 115-year-old Canadiens team might be as omnipresent as the Packers in Wisconsin, but for the first time enrollment in youth soccer has surpassed youth hockey in Montreal, likely due to the steady influx of immigrants from around the world.
“The awareness of our team is bigger here than anywhere else I’ve been,” said Marsch. “When I walk around town people know who I am. That didn’t really happen in Chicago and LA. If I go to Little Italy it’s like, forget it, everybody wants me to sit down and feed me.”
This level of fandom is found in a few other places, mainly the expansion cities, which include Seattle, Philadelphia, Vancouver and the pinnacle of North American soccer, Portland. I spent ninety plus minutes among the ranks of the Timbers Army at Jeld-Wen Field in May 2013 and it was honestly the closest thing to being at Lambeau Field. The passion in the Pacific Northwest is truly world-class, and their supporter culture is starting to rub off on MLS cities across the continent.
There is one original club challenging Portland for Soccer Capital of America, Sporting Kansas City, the reigning MLS Cup Champions and host of the 2013 All-Star Game, which I went to with my mom and a couple of friends. The lively turnout for the three-day festivities was evidence that soccer has a stronghold in the Midwest.
MLS may be the face of North American soccer, but the soul is the century-old US Open Cup. Any amateur, semipro and professional team can enter the tournament. The Cup’s history is the story of American soccer; a blue-collar immigrant game. The tournament’s most successful clubs are Bethlehem Steel (1907-1930), a team of Pennsylvania steelworkers, and Maccabi Los Angeles (1971-1982), founded by a group of Israeli expatriates. MLS clubs have held the title over the last few decades but it hasn’t deterred gangs of weekend warriors.
My high school was unique in that our college prep courses were of the International Baccalaureate variety, rather than the more common Advanced Placement. The latter uses multiple choice tests to assess what students don’t know, while the former uses essay prompts to assess what students do know. For me, this is the main difference between football/basketball and soccer/hockey. In football/basketball you are expected to score each time you have the ball. As a result, the dominant attitude in America is the more scoring the better. In Europe and Canada I developed an appreciation for what I like to call “build up” (or “goalie”) sports, where the anticipation of a goal can lead to more euphoria than a buzzer-beating jump shot or a last second hail mary touchdown.
Improvisation is valued in all sports, but none more than soccer. Played at the highest level, it is a game of intelligence and elegance. This is why it is referred to as the “Beautiful Game.” By this token, football should be considered the “Ugly Game,” because it thrives on violence and brutality. Football resembles the frontal assault style of Civil War combat. Revelations about bounties being paid for injuring opposing players in the NFL, plus the long-term health effects of not just big hits, but cumulative small hits, has further sullied the NFL’s image.
Much was made last football season of the “concussion crisis” and the unprecedented $765 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit by a group of former players against the NFL. Many ex-coaches, ex-players and pundits rushed to defend the game. Others called for stricter rules forbidding paralyzing hits. The reality is that brutal hits are part of the fabric of football. Slow-motion films of bone-crushing hits have long been used to sell the sport.
I don’t think football will ever change. The near billion-dollar settlement might seem massive, but it’s nothing compared to the $10 billion a year in revenue generated by the NFL. Like the banks, the NFL is “too big to fail.” There is simply too much money at stake. In America, capitalism always comes first.
In light of the settlement some journalists have put the moral and ethical onus on the fans. The fact that football players’ bodies are sacrificed for our entertainment is not news. The man who legitimized professional football in the 1920s, Red Grange, was burnt out by age 26. There was a “concussion crisis” in the 1990s.
Americans excel at willful ignorance and collective short-term memory. It doesn’t matter how much attention a story gets in the media or how much evidence there is to back it up. The danger of playing football is like climate change; we know it exists but we don’t really want to do anything about it.
Imagine this: legendary linebacker Junior Seau shoots himself in the chest during the Super Bowl halftime show instead of in his own home. Would it alter our attitude about the game? I doubt it. Football is our most prized national distraction. I spoke with an assistant high school coach here in Milwaukee who admitted that his staff tells their players, “Parents care about concussions now, so if you take a big hit, do whatever you can to pass the concussion test and get back in the game.”
I’ve cared for elderly family members with degenerative brain diseases. I can’t imagine being responsible for my middle-aged father in the same condition, as the children and wives of so many former football players do. Many will say, “Well, they know the score and look how much they’re paid.” First off, you can’t put a price on a functioning brain. Secondly, many players didn’t know the risk, which is exactly what the NFL avoided admitting by securing a settlement in the lawsuit. By not going to trial the public will never know about documents that might have proven the NFL knowingly withheld information about the dangers of playing football.
Don’t get me wrong, soccer isn’t innocent. Countless match fixing scandals at all levels of play have plagued the game forever. FIFA (soccer’s governing body) is a grotesquely corrupt bunch. Concussions occur in soccer as well and studies have shown that a predilection for headers can result in an increased risk for CTE. But the difference is that in football violence and brutality is actively encouraged, even at the peewee level.
If we want our kids to play a safer game, don’t bother lobbying for an altered version of football, but consider the original version. For so long the consensus has been that soccer isn’t popular in America, not because kids and adults don’t play it, but because professional leagues aren’t profitable. The success of professional leagues depend heavily on TV contracts and soccer’s limited commercial time doesn’t suit advertisers and networks. It’s no surprise that the rise of American soccer and MLS has paralleled the emergence of social and online media.
Back in November I watched a 2013 MLS playoff match between the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers at a rowdy supporters bar in Northeast Portland. It was being played at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, home of both the Sounders and the Super Bowl Champion Seahawks, who had a regular season game scheduled the following afternoon. The field was painted for football and people were complaining that the yard lines were distracting and disrespectful. I reminded them that for much of the 20th Century football was played on baseball diamonds.
If soccer becomes the next great American sport, how will Milwaukee fit into the picture? It’s hard to imagine owning an MLS franchise anytime soon, considering our struggle to keep the Bucks in town and the fact that we don’t have a soccer team already in the second or third tier leagues. Sure, the Wave dominated their indoor league, but that’s a different game and the league recently folded.
It’s not that Milwaukee doesn’t have a passion for the game; our immigrant populations have adored the sport for decades. It’s about economics. Supporting the Brewers and Bucks is all we can seem to muster at this point. In 2005 there was a window and a push for an MLS franchise, which was spearheaded by Peter Wilt, a Wisconsin resident of 30 years and former General Manager of the Chicago Fire, but the plan ultimately fell through.
Wilt, who is now president of Indy Eleven club of the North American Soccer League (NASL), was a speaker Tuesday night at a symposium held at City Hall to discuss the prospect of a professional outdoor soccer team in Milwaukee. The event brought together a panel of speakers from the local soccer scene, media and an alderman, Nik Kovac. It was the first in a series of events held in the Greater Milwaukee Area over the next six months intended to generate support for a professional team, which would most likely play in a lower division and at an already existing venue such as the Marquette Valley Fields.
The international friendly match between the most popular Mexican club, Chivas de Guadalajara, and Premier League squad Swansea City tonight at Miller Park will be a good test of Milwaukee’s appetite for the game. The turnout might be skewed by the fact that it will be just three days after the World Cup final in Brazil, but that’s just smart planning by Miller Park for their first international soccer match.
I doubt I’ll ever enjoy soccer on the same emotional level that I have football, simply because I don’t have childhood memories attached to the game. But I’ve been busy making adult memories and I continued that streak this past month watching with the rest of the world as the greatest players on the planet vied for the Cup. And just think, what if some day one of those players started their professional career right here in Milwaukee? I believe the time is right to start building for that future.