“Real” Salt Lake: Major League Soccer’s Authenticity Problem

We were all irritatingly young at some point. People with older siblings can recall time after time when they tried to fit in, but never quite got there, no matter how many rap discographies they torrented or weird jeans they bought. Absent our siblings, still more of us arrive on college campuses for our freshman years believing ourselves to be fully-formed adults with worthwhile thoughts, when really we’re merely parroting the vetted ideas of other people and cultures. (College-freshman “Marxists,” for example, are almost assuredly not steeped in Communism.)

However, with a bit of self-awareness (and perhaps after a good deal of fun has been made at our expense), we find that we were striving to fit into something mostly because of the community and tradition behind it. The only reason I’m saying all of this about ill-fitting identities, you see, is that Major League Soccer seems to be permanently stuck in college-freshman mode.

As you very well know, the USA is not all that big on soccer, even as almost everywhere else in the world shuts down whenever a big game is going on. When the Americans recently took home the Women’s World Cup, it was less of a cause for a giant national celebration in the streets, and more an occasion for a few added exclamation points per tweet. If the men ever won a World Cup (which they won’t), we’d be more confused that some other country out there wasn’t able to out-soccer us, given that many of our best potential soccer players realized they could dunk or swing a good bat a long time ago.

This is a country that didn’t even have a top-level soccer league when it hosted the 1994 World Cup, so Major League Soccer was born out of a requirement for hosting the tournament.

In the beginning, MLS tried like hell to force American sports sensibilities into the context of world soccer. To that effect, it was probably the only soccer league in the world that had a game clock that counted down instead of up, and resolved any tie with a shootout. Even in the late ’90s, when the European leagues were impossible to find on American cable TV, this attempt to disguise the game in cowboy boots failed to captivate many existing soccer fans, and ESPECIALLY failed to reel in Jeff from Fort Worth who hibernates between December and the NFL Draft every year. The league proceeded to lose cataclysmic sums of money, and multiple teams folded not long after their founding. Clearly, Americans had seen through the transparent ploys to get their attention.

So instead of doubling down on its original conceit, MLS struck out on a different path altogether: pretending it belonged.

In the years since the near-failure of MLS, the strategy of trying to blend into the global crowd has been largely successful, if woefully inauthentic. This phoniness is best reflected in the very names of the teams that have sprouted up since 2002: Real Salt Lake, Sporting Kansas City, and a spat of teams that have simply appended “FC” (or the laudably more appropriate “SC”) to the name of the city where they play.

At face value, there are few things in sports more bizarre than giving teams that play in places like Salt Lake City and Kansas City monikers that evoke well-loved traditional powers from the Iberian peninsula (Spain’s got a Real Madrid, a Real Sociedad, and a Real Betis. Portugal’s got Sporting in Lisbon). Real Madrid (“real” meaning “royal”) had its name bestowed upon it by the legitimate, true-to-God King Alfonso XIII in 1920. Utah, the astute reader may have realized, does not have a king, unless you count whichever strip mall sports bar calls itself the “King of Wings” over there.

Real Salt Lake is playing dress-up with someone else’s venerable history, co-opting a backstory that doesn’t fit, and walking on thin ice over copyright infringement. Sporting Kansas City switched over from being called the Kansas City Wizards, putting a layer of European gold-colored paint over a ring that would definitely turn a man’s finger green. They’re “Sporting Kansas City” in the same way that I’m Dirk Nowitzki. I can say I’m Dirk, I can legally change my name to Dirk, but that won’t make me any taller, more German, or more able to drain mid-range fadeaways.

American sports teams and European soccer teams alike have naming traditions rooted in intricate and organic origins. That’s how we have two Major League Baseball teams named after socks, and a football team named after a long-defunct meatpacking company in Wisconsin. The English Premier League’s Crystal Palace FC is named after a large building erected for a 19th-century exhibition, and the building hasn’t stood since 1936. These are names that outlast their original context, names which draw questions from each incoming generation of fans, even if they don’t make immediate sense. Even names without much historical backing tend to fit: Arizona has diamondbacks, Houston has, erm, Texans, at least.

MLS’s current logo encapsulates the problem here. It’s a red, white, and blue crest that says “MLS” on it, emblazoned with some some stars. It just looks “soccerish” without having any real meaning. The insistence of the league and its teams on continually referring to a phantom history will make its future growth ring hollow, a drywall McMansion in a neighborhood of farmhouses. Then, in 2040, when a kid inevitably asks his parents where the name “Real Salt Lake” comes from, the adults will probably just shrug, and look for the Bayern Milwaukee score on the (holographic?) jumbotron.