Be warned, soccer fans: MLS is poised to creep up on you like a wheaten terrier nuzzling its snout against your leg in search of pats. In its 18th season, the league has come of age. If it was human, it could vote and join the military. As it is, in cities like Portland, Kansas City, Toronto, and Philadelphia, the game has become a cacophonous symbol of local pride. Young fans exhilarated by an intoxicating supporter culture living within soccer-specific stadiums have themselves become markers of the surging self-confidence propelling the growth of the game in the United States.
Whether you follow the U.S. men’s national team or the English Premier League, it has been hard to ignore this rise in profile. Witness the Azteca-defying heroics of a young defensive tandem, Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler, alongside the MLS-produced spine of Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, and Brad Guzan. Or the Premier League acquisitions of Kei Kamara, Geoff Cameron, and Brek Shea. This strange, new reality of Premier League scouts taking MLS seriously has encouraged a wave of European football–loving American fans to follow suit.
This cultural moment deserves a guide as those of you living outside MLS’s 19-team footprint are left wondering who to root for. Just because the teams lack the eons of history lived by their European counterparts does not mean they are short of personality. We thrashed out this ready reckoner (in the spirit of our Game of Thrones–to–English Premier League Converter) to serve as your muse. For those craving a bandwagon to jump on or an underdog to cherish, there is something for everyone. Define your rooting interest now, America, and usher in an era in which soccer ceases being your Sport of the Future, as it has been since 1972.
Few franchises work harder to present a product people want to watch, but there is little about this squad that could be described as sexy. If you like to mainline hours of C-SPAN, this is the team for you. Once you start watching, time will not exactly fly by, but it will most definitely be killed. If, like us, you warm to the work of C-SPAN’s Washington Journal host, Steve Scully, you will see a real similarity in the play of attacking star Chris Rolfe.
A toasty glow radiated out from this club whose fans revel in the Crew’s past glories and hard-hat work ethic. Yet, at the center its genuine midwestern goodness lies a complexity: This is a team that has learned to savor and celebrate everything and everyone unabashedly. It’s a trait that makes this the perfect rooting interest for those who savor the big hugs and musical comedy stylings of Glee. William McKinley High School may be located about 90 miles away in Lima, Ohio, but the Crew shares its culture of upbeat, tolerant humanism. Witness Frankie Hejduk, a fish-out-of-water Finn Hudson type who arrived as a laid-back Southern California surfer dude yet somehow fit right in. That’s proof this is a team even Blaine Anderson could love. In his words, “If we all share musical shame with each other, we could all become a more cohesive team for regionals.”
The league does not get more old-school than this. In MLS’s pioneering days of hash-marked fields and empty NFL stadiums, D.C. bordered on the dynastic. But as other teams developed, this franchise failed to do the same, marveling at its own glory years and expecting others to do likewise. Toupee-clad members of the Burt Reynolds fan club, this is your team. So what if your man is now narrating Hallmark’s 2012 Hero Dog Awards, as long as your Betamax versions of Deliverance and Smokey and the Bandit II still work, the love will abide. Stay strong. And draw strength from the truth that chest wigs never fade.
A predictable, systematic, no-frills outfit. There is no surprise with this hardworking side, yet that is what makes them successful. If a pair of Carhartt flat front work pants lurks in your wardrobe, this is your team. You know what you are getting when you buy them. Functional, flame-resistant durability has never been so stylish. Dynamo players may not exactly look like elite athletes — take Will Bruin for example — but by the time opponents are picking the ball out of the back of the net, they are trotting away to do the Dancing Bear.
A team that prefers to run off emotional adrenaline rather than calculated strategy. Owner Joey Saputo is hell-bent on crafting something Italian in the bosom of Quebec, and every detail of his team — from a torrent of players including Marco Di Vaio, Alessandro Nesta, and Matteo Ferrari, to the blue jerseys — evokes a sense of the Azzurri. The surreal nature of the enterprise is reminiscent of a Fellini production. It is hard to fathom exactly what is going on amid the chaos, but the stunning moments of beauty that reveal themselves reinforce the sense it is something precious and inimitable.
New England Revolution
Another franchise with noble roots that has struggled to keep pace with the league’s growth curve. The impact Robert Kraft’s ownership had on the league in the early days can only be applauded, yet his team have wilted amid the MLS arms race of Designated Players and soccer-specific stadiums. They are Boston, the AOR staple of “More Than a Feeling” fame. The band started so strongly by releasing what was the best-selling debut album in musical history, grabbing a Best New Artist Grammy nomination, and making its New York debut at Madison Square Garden, only to become bogged down by legal struggles and the bewildering new terrain of MTV. Yet, as its diehard fans know well, a peculiar pleasure can be derived from hearing the same old pipe-organ riffs played over and over again. As the lyrics themselves suggest, “It’s more than a feeling, when I hear that old song they used to play.”
New York Red Bulls
A gilded franchise that appears so gloriously oblivious to the world around it, the theater it conjures is captivating. Though it is cloaked in glamour, money, and luxury, it is impossible to shake a gut feeling it is all going to end badly. For that reason alone, it is impossible to avert your eyes. The Red Bulls are MLS’s Kardashians, a nouveau riche collection who are famous just for being there. The singular Kim is Thierry Henry. The slightly nice Kourtney is cuddly Tim Cahill. And the abhorrent Khloe is Rafa Marquez, who has wisely been jettisoned to “take Mexico.”
A hot mess rather than a soccer team. Lawsuits ensnare a front office that had blown the budget on busted — and recently departed — former wunderkind Freddy Adu. Despite this, fan passion has barely been dented. The fanatical Sons of Ben were instrumental in the club’s founding and their love for the club is bulletproof. Legions of John Tesh fans will relate to their pain. Savaged by critics and mocked by other musicians, they do not care. When the sun sets at Red Rocks and the wind blows through their besuited hero’s hair, nothing else matters.
Sporting Kansas City
This team once seemed doomed. As the Kansas City Wiz, they played out games before a handful of fans at an eerily silent Arrowhead Stadium. The redheaded stepchild of the Kansas City Chiefs. New ownership changed everything. A stunning stadium was crafted, a much needed rebrand executed, and a massive fan base attracted to a talent-soaked team. They are Pulp Fiction–era John Travolta. A man whose career seemed doomed to end in Look Who’s Talking 17 before Quentin Tarantino changed everything. One minute, he’s changing diapers alongside Kirstie Alley. The next he’s dancing with Uma Thurman.
Blessed with money, voracious support, and high hopes from the outset, this club has conspired to piss it all away. Its riveted fan base have suffered through a carousel of coaches and a record-breakingly dire run of results. Like Lindsay Lohan’s fans, hope springs eternal. No rubbernecking here, just an unshakeable belief that one day soon, all the stars will align, the rest of the world will understand her true talent, and an Academy Award will ensue.
This spinoff of Liga MX’s Chivas del Guadalajara, seemed like a slam dunk of an idea at the time. The parent club is a Mexican powerhouse. Extending the brand to the fertile territory of Southern California should have been like building its own ATM. The reality has been lackluster, undermined by its owner’s poor decision-making and misguided philosophy. This is Baywatch Nights redux. A global juggernaut’s ill-conceived clone that, despite feeling like ratings gold at the moment of conception, lacked enough swimsuit-clad actresses bouncing down the beach to last. Colorful coach-cum-savior, “Chelis” has shocked the team into a storming start, but if he is David Hasselhoff, he is closer to the crawl-on-the-floor-drunk-cheeseburger Hoff than the one that looked so snug in a Speedo.
Sharing the same ownership as Premier League power Arsenal, this club has suffered an American version of their fate. Sports mogul Stan Kroenke has demonstrated a masterful ability to chip away at his clubs’ strengths, smother their traditions, and sell their assets while slowly reconciling fans to the fact that glory exists only in the past tense. They are a Sanyo 58-inch HD TV, which looks great at first glance but carries inferior components, the quality of which lessens year to year, all in the name of cutting costs.
A feisty club whose competitive edge is only blunted as a result of being perpetually in transition with no apparent long-term plan. Slurpee addicts will love everything about this team. Like the icy beverage, it has no real nutrients, tastes absolutely delicious, and though the sugar-high it offers can’t be beat, the buzz never lasts quite long enough.
Los Angeles Galaxy
Back-to-back champions. Their demise is routinely predicted at the beginning of every season, yet the team regenerates to emerge stronger than ever, leaving rivals looking on in waspish irritation. This is U2 at the height of their lofty pretension. Try as you might to hate their work, you can only admire their success. Star player Robbie Keane is Larry Mullen Jr. The no-nonsense Dublin-born striker will do whatever is best for the good of the song. (Lalas, once the team’s general manager, chuckled while comparing his tenure to the experimental Zooropa LP that the Irish Independent described thusly: “The songs sound like they were knocked up in double-quick time and with about as much thought put into the lyrics as goes into a DJ’s timecheck.”)
Organic, authentic, progressive, and more than a little crusty under the fingernails. A willingness to go their own way makes this the team of choice for Phish fans. While the performance on the field can feel like an excruciatingly long free-form jam that concertgoers have to pretend to like while privately aching for the next song, Phish aficionados’ ability to laugh at their own wackiness will come in handy. A fan base that knows a thing or two about grass will appreciate the irony of their team playing on synthetic turf.
Real Salt Lake
New-age self-enlightenment has been this club’s M.O. Coach Jason Kreis talks about team transformation with such abandon that he often sounds more like a life coach. If you like the positive energy, motivational firewalking, and all the casual lymphology of a Tony Robbins self-help book on tape, sign up here. Though it plays as if setting personal goals is more important than scoring them, no pro sports team is more aware that “only those who have learned the power of sincere and selfless contribution experience life’s deepest joy: true fulfillment.”
San Jose Earthquakes
Everyone hates them, but they don’t care. In fact, they thrive off it. This “us against the world” reality is reminiscent of early 1980s Black Flag. Their ethos of aggressive nonconformity is niche, yet it is passionately felt. Henry Rollins is Steven Lenhart, the league’s most polarizing figure, who thrives by pushing people’s buttons. Just below the ugliness lies the poetry for all who wish to experience it.
Seattle Sounders FC
The passion of this team’s enormous following is matched only by the cynicism of its detractors. Yet those who believe are not mere supporters, they follow with blind faith, results be damned. If, as the cliche suggests, soccer is a religion, the Sounders are its Church of Scientology. Charismatic coach Sigi Schmid has the girth of a late-in-life L. Ron Hubbard. Drew Carey plays the Tom Cruise–Hollywood celebrity–booster role as co-owner.
Vancouver Whitecaps FC
Fashion is the selling point for this team. Their jersey’s minimalist aesthetic ensures the sponsor pops right off the players’ chests. Helmut Lang junkies rejoice. Your deconstructionist hankerings have found a footballing home. Once the Whitecaps can find players with the talent to match their garb, there will be no stopping you.
Roger Bennett (@rogbennett) is a columnist for ESPN FC and, with Michael Davies, is one of Grantland’s “Men in Blazers.”
Alexi Lalas (@AlexiLalas) is an ESPN soccer analyst who likes Slurpees and Ratt.