Photo by G. Newman Lawrence
It is October 13, 1996, in Kansas City, Mo.
Goalkeeper Garth Lagerway, with hair beaded and braided, protects his net. Behind him, “CHIEFS” is spray-painted in bright red and outlined in white. The crowd at Arrowhead Stadium waits.
Thirty-five yards away stands Los Angeles’ Greg Vanney, clad in the green and black and red and yellow jersey of the Galaxy. He has five seconds to beat Lagerway and clinch victory.
The Referee’s whistle echoes through the near-vacant venue and Vanney rushes forward. Lagerway races to meet him. The attacker’s shot glances off the keeper’s right and trickles over the goalmouth.
The Galaxy have won Game Two of the 1996 MLS Western Conference Final in a shootout, clinching their place in the league’s inaugural championship.
There remain consistent through-lines between today and that playoff moment 24 years ago. Vanney and Lagerway again squared off in last season’s final— the former as head coach of Toronto FC, and the latter as general manager and president of the now-reigning champion Seattle Sounders.
More, though, has changed for the better. Soccer specific stadiums reverberate with chants and cheers, replacing the half-empty football arenas of old. Gone, too, is the novelty shootout style which sought to reinvent the game.
History suggested professional soccer in the United States and Canada would fail. Instead, MLS has succeeded and thrived, expanding from 10 teams in 1996 to 30 clubs present day. As the league prepares for its 25th season, its growth and evolution are evident.
The venues are better. The players are better. The product is better.
But one thing is worse: MLS has lost its originality.
The hideously beautiful array of kits of the past became a victim of corporate partnership. Modern MLS kits offer little to suggest each uniform isn’t created from the same “paint by numbers” template.
Aesthetically bland jerseys, though, aren’t the league’s biggest problem.
Inter Miami CF, one of MLS’ newest expansion sides, suffered a setback in their legal battle with Seria A’s Inter Milan regarding trademark infringement earlier this week.
According to Law.com, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office dismissed MLS’s and the South Florida side’s argument of “likely confusion.” The Italian club appears likely to win trademark ownership of “Inter.”
It begs this question: did Miami’s ownership choose “Inter” in an attempt to gain clout and legitimacy by creating a false connection with a European powerhouse which exudes clout and legitimacy.
Miami’s name is the most egregious example of MLS’s current naming trend, but not the first. The league now favors a European approach to branding over the “nickname” template more commonly used on this side of the Atlantic and in the infancy of MLS. Of the last nine expansion sides, all have incorporated either “FC,” “SC,” or “CF.” No new team has used a nickname since Montreal Impact joined MLS in 2012.
Overall, 15 of the league’s 27 clubs feature some variation of “football/soccer club.” There’s a “Dynamo,” a “Real,” a “Sporting.,” and three “Uniteds.” Only eight teams use a nickname and nothing else.
At best, this new style is boring. It lacks invention and risk. It lacks effort. Names like Chicago Fire and Colorado Rapids try and connect with their city. Not every nickname is a winner, but at least they are unique.
At worst, the modern naming templates are parasitic. They seek to siphon the esteem and respectability of long-established organizations. They say it’s better to sound European than to be innovative.
Inter Miami’s success won’t be defined by a name. Los Angeles FC and Atlanta United took the league by force not because they eschewed an American approach to team branding, but because they created a hell of a product.
MLS doesn’t need to replicate anything or anyone. It needs to reclaim its originality.