The Absurdity of MLS Nomenclature

By European standards, Major League Soccer, the highest level on the footballing pyramid in both the United States and Canada, is still in its infancy.  After countless failed leagues plagued by infighting, mismanagement, and disorganization, the idea for Major League Soccer emerged as part of the USA’s successful bid to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup.  The league was launched in 1996 with ten teams, expanding to twelve two years later.

At first the league struggled with both attendance figures and television ratings.  Attempts to ‘Americanize’ the game by instituting rules such as shootouts in which a a player started 35 yards away from goal and had five seconds to beat the keeper and score to resolve ties and a clock that counted backwards from 45:00 down to zero failed to attract interest from new fans and alienated traditional ones.  In the first five years of its existence MLS lost $250 million and in 2001 two teams were forced to fold, reducing the number of teams back the original ten. Most teams played in stadiums rented from American Football teams, the capacities of which dwarfed the average attendance.  The pitiful performance of the United States at the 1998 World Cup, when the squad made up mostly of MLS players lost all of their first round matches, was a testament to the league’s poor quality.

Fifteen years on, things are looking up for Major League Soccer.  The league now has nineteen teams and all but five have “soccer-specific” stadiums.  As of 2012 the MLS is the 8th best attended football league in the world.  The best-supported team, the Seattle Sounders, have an average attendance of nearly 43,000 and their derby with the Portland Timbers has drawn around 67,000 fans in both of the past two seasons, figures that would be considered impressive in the top European leagues.  A recent article from Forbes mentions that attendance figures have steadily risen over 35% since 2000 and more and more Americans are identifying themselves as fans of the sport.  The growth of MLS has not been ignored on the other side of the pond; even the BBC recently published an article entitled ‘Can the MLS Revolution Survive and Thrive’, pointing out that the MLS is now the third most popular league in the United States in terms of average attendance, trailing only the NFL (American football) and the MLB (baseball).

The league has had undeniable success, but it is impossible to overlook the numerous idiosyncrasies that set it apart from its European counterparts.  First of all, the champion is determined not by points total at the end of the season, but by a playoff system (though this is not unique to the MLS as several Latin American leagues also utilize a playoff system).  There is no promotion or relegation.  The league has a salary cap of $2.95 million dollars to ensure relative parity, but teams are also allowed three ‘Designated Players’ whose salaries do not count toward the salary cap.  Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane of the Los Angeles Galaxy are two such designated players, and their salaries take up two thirds of the entire wage bill. Meanwhile, teammate Kafi Opare toils for the league minimum yearly salary of $35,125, less than 1/100th of what Donovan earns.  Because the teams are all ‘franchised’ and effectively owned by the league, the transfer system is an incredibly muddled affair.  For example, in Clint Dempsey’s highly publicized move from Spurs to Seattle Sounders, the $9 million transfer fee was covered by MLS, not Seattle.

While these issues are well documented and oft-discussed, there is another rather distinctive aspect of MLS that is rarely brought up: the naming practices of certain clubs.  In recent years there has been a noticeable trend of ‘Europeanization’ when it comes to the way the teams are named: Dallas Burn changed its name to FC Dallas, the Kansas City Wizards became Sporting Kansas City, and a new team in Salt Lake City adopted the name ‘Real.’  This pattern is not universal, of course.  Traditional American naming practices which are so looked down upon in England (just look at the recation to the decision to rename Hull City to Hull Tigers) are still prevalent.  You still have your Columbus Crew, Chicago Fire, Los Angeles Galaxy, etc.  But the Europeanization is impossible to ignore because of its sheer absurdity. Not that there is anything wrong with European influence on the league.  The rise of organized fan groups and the culture of the tifo, especially in the Pacific Northwest clubs of Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland (see this Portland Timbers tifo for an example), are a testament to the passion and dedication of American and Canadian supporters who take inspiration from their continental counterparts.

But there is a distinction between inspiration and wholesale appropriation of cultural institutions with which a club shares no connections.  The former is an inevitable process of cross-cultural exchange; Italian Ultra culture, for example, has influenced supporter groups from the Iberian peninsula to the Balkans and beyond.  But the latter is a hollow attempt at mimicry.  Here, then, are the three teams which best exemplify this unfortunate phenomenon.

Sporting Kansas City

We begin with the least egregious offender.  Sporting Kansas City were founded as the Kansas City Wiz in 1996 before changing their name to the Wizards the following year.  They were a moderately successful side who won their first MLS Cup in 2000 and the US Open Cup in 2004. But they were among the least popular clubs in the league, with very poor attendance, low television ratings, and merchandise sales that were dead last in the league.  Then, in 2010, the club’s ownership decided to entirely overhaul and rejuvenate the organization.  This project included a new stadium, a forceful marketing offensive to get locals interested in the team, and of course, a name change. In a New York Times article on the Kansas City renaissance, Sam Borden discusses the name change:

“Among the top suggestions was the Kansas City Bees because, the consultants said, the bee is the official insect of both Missouri and Kansas.  Instead, the club opted for Sporting Kansas City, a European-sounding name that was emblematic of its hope of becoming more than just a soccer team. The Sporting name also dovetailed with the club’s European-style soccer stadium and concerted effort to appeal to the serious soccer fan.”

The word choice is important here: it is a “European-sounding” name, not a European name. The justification of the name by alluding to becoming “more than just a soccer team” is a noble but misguided effort.  As of now, Sporting Kansas City are just that: a soccer team.  The name Sporting actually means something more.  Sporting Clube de Portugal, commonly known outside of Portugal as Sporting Lisbon, are the most widely recognized club who are known by that name.  And unlike Sporting Kansas City, they are actually a multi-sports club, fielding teams and supporting athletes in sports as diverse as archery, handball, and weightlifting.  It is, true to its name, a sporting club.  Admittedly, not all clubs that bear the Sporting name are still multi-sport clubs.  Sporting de Gijón of Spain currently only fields a football team, but in the past also fielded hockey, rugby, and handball teams.  The Sporting name is therefore not a misnomer but a continuation of the club’s historical legacy.  A legacy which Sporting Kansas City is trying to fabricate.

To be fair to the Kansas City club, their president announced plans to add rugby and lacrosse teams to the club to make it reflect its name.  As of now, however, these plans have not yet come to pass.  The Kansas City Blues rugby team does play the football team’s training facility as its home ground but is not formally a part of the Sporting club.

There is nothing inherently wrong with Sporting’s effort to adopt a more European sounding name or to market itself as “more than just a soccer team.”  But when this marketing strategy involves co-opting a piece of cultural heritage which has no connection to your own club, the entire project begins to feel forced and artificial.

Houston Dynamo

The merits on which Houston Dynamo made this list probably have more to do with ignorance as opposed to deliberate cultural appropriation.  The club was founded in 2005, when the San Jose Earthquakes relocated to Houston, and began play in 2006.  The team was originally to be named Houston 1836 in reference to the year of the city’s founding.  The name was plagued by controversy, however, as 1836 is also the year of the Texas Revolution and the proposed crest featured a silhouette of General Sam Houston, a prominent figure in the revolution and Texas’s subsequent independence from Mexico.  The issue quickly became politicized and the 1836 name was dropped as a result of protests from the city’s substantial Hispanic majority.

In the midst of the fallout from the 1836 controversy, the Houston ownership opted for a new name for the nascent club: the Houston Dynamo.  President Oliver Luck explained the choice and apologized for the 1836 debacle:

“Dynamo is a word to describe someone who never fatigues, never gives up.  The new name is symbolic of Houston as an energetic, hard-working, risk-taking kind of town.  We never intended for the team’s name to offend any member of the Houston community.  We listened hard to the fan reaction and believe that the Houston Dynamo name is an exciting, appropriate and locally relevant new team brand.”

The name was also an homage to the Houston Dynamos, a team that played between 1983 and 1991 in various failed leagues before folding itself.  But dropping that last letter was significant. Dynamo, according to the Houston Chronicle, is “popular in European soccer, with teams such as Dynamo Moscow (Russia) and Dynamo Kyiv (Ukraine) among the most popular in the continent.”  The blatant hyperbole notwithstanding, the Chronicle makes a fair assessment. Dynamo, or Dinamo depending on the country, is a very common name for European teams. In addition to the two teams listed above, there is a Dinamo Tbilisi, Dinamo Minsk, Dinamo Bucharest, Dinamo Zagreb, Dynamo Dresden, and countless others.

What the chronicle fails to mention is that all of these clubs happen to be from the Soviet Union or the Soviet Bloc.  This is no coincidence.  Dinamo Moscow, a multi-sports club which was the first to bear the name, was founded by Felix Dzerzhinsky in 1923.  Dzerzhinsky is best known for establishing the Cheka, the notorious Soviet secret police agency that was a forerunner to the KGB.  In subsequent years, new Dynamo club were established with affiliations with either the Ministry of the Interior or the secret police in their respective countries.  In East Germany, for example, Stasi chief Erich Mielke was also the chairman of Sportvereinigung Dynamo, which ran many sporting clubs including the football club Dynamo Dresden.

It is highly doubtful that Oliver Luck had repressive Communist regimes or mass executions in mind when he unveiled the name ‘Dynamo’ for his Houston club.  Nor is it likely that the now defunct Soviet Ministry of Interior Affair has managed to clandestinely establish a football club on the Gulf of Mexico coast.  But the name Dynamo is inextricably linked to clubs with certain political connections which are hardly the sort that Houston – or any Western side for that matter – want to associate with their club.  Accidental appropriation is perhaps the best way to describe the situation, but it does not lessen the absurdity of the fact that a Texan team has adopted a name reserved for clubs in Communist countries affiliated with brutal, repressive organizations.

Real Salt Lake

The most flagrant example of this regrettable trend can be found in the quaint Salt Lake City suburb of Sandy, Utah, which Real Salt Lake call home.  Real Salt Lake was founded in 2004 and there is no mystery about the origin of the name.  Then owner Dave Checketts explained that:

“In Madrid, I was looking at an organization that was amazing. I wanted to draw on Real Madrid’s brand credibility. And we wanted a name where no one would question what sport the team is playing, and that’s what Real Salt Lake is.”

He does have a point.  Real Madrid are, in terms of revenue, the biggest team in the world and sit comfortably in first place in Deloitte’s Football Money League.  Their brand is unmistakable, and there’s no question about what sport is the team is playing.  Even the most casual sports fan knows that Real Madrid = football.

But is brand recognition and marketability enough of a reason to name your club?  Let’s start with the obvious.  Real is a Spanish word meaning Royal.  Think about that for a second.  First off, the name is Spanish.  One might think that this could be a strategy to  increase the club’s appeal among the Hispanic community, but only 22.3% of the population of Salt Lake City is of Hispanic origin.  In comparison, in Houston, Dallas, and Los Angeles, the three other cities in the Southwest with MLS teams, the percentage of Hispanics is 44%, 42.4%, and 48.5%, respectively.  Of course, these figures do not disprove the idea that the Spanish language name was chosen with the Hispanic community in mind.  But there is no evidence to support the idea that this thought crosses the minds of the executives making the decision.  No, it’s highly unlikely that the Spanish word Real was picked for any reason other than its association with Real Madrid.

Second, the translation of the word is Royal.  Royal.  In a country whose revered Declaration of Independence is essentially a big ‘fuck you’ to the King of England.  In a country founded on the explicit rejection of the institution of monarchy.  A country whose Constitution prohibits the government from granting titles of nobility.  What possible relevance does the name Royal hold to Salt Lake City, Utah, or anywhere in the United States for that matter?

Finally, the name Real does not just apply to Madrid.  Real Madrid wasn’t even the original name of the Madrid club; they were founded as Madrid FC and only became known by their modern name after being granted the title ‘Real’ by the Spanish King Alfonso XIII in 1920. Real Madrid were far from the only team to receive the patronage of the Spanish King, nor were they the first.  That honor was bestowed upon Real Club Deportivo La Coruña in 1907.  The clubs that received patronage tended to be from geographically diverse areas of Spain, e.g. Real Betis in Andalucia, Real Sociedead in the Basque Country, Real Club Deportivo Español in Catalonia, etc.  No word on whether Alfonso XIII ever made it out to the shores of the Great Salt Lake, however.

Admittedly Real Salt Lake have established an agreement with Real Madrid which involves biennial friendlies, annual training for RSL players at Real Madrid’s facilities, and the creation of a youth academy in Utah.  Though considering the nature of Real Madrid’s ‘special relationship’ with Spurs, it may not be long until we see Angel di Maria or Karim Benzema shipped off to the Colorado Rapids, Real Salt Lake’s major regional rival.

The christening of the Salt Lake club as ‘Real’ for explicitly business and branding purposes represents the most glaring example of cultural appropriation by MLS clubs.  The name has literally nothing to do with the community, with the city, or with the people.  It is simply a marketing ploy to increase the club’s brand recognition.  And while it is true that Real Madrid is an instantly recognizable brand, it is far, far more than that.  It is a club with deep roots in its community, an institution with a name that carries a legacy that far outweighs any marketing gimmick.

Final Thoughts

This article should not be taken as a condemnation of the MLS as a whole, but rather of the specific practices of cultural and historical appropriation mentioned above.  The sad irony of the situation is that this attempt at importing tradition and prestige is entirely unnecessary.

Teams such as the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers are drawing on the culture and history of their own locales while taking inspiration from European fan groups, and by doing so establishing a burgeoning tradition of supporter culture.  Sporting Kansas City, Real Salt Lake, and Houston Dynamo are all popular, successful clubs with impressive attendance figures.  Is this success really dependent on their names?  Would they not be better off adopting names that better reflect the cultural traditions of their cities?

As it stands, this is hardly an issue.  But, if, as senior spokesman Dan Courtemanche mentioned in the aforementioned BBC article, the goal of the MLS is to be among the best leagues of the world, surely nourishing a homegrown tradition and history is a better option than attempting to import pre-manufactured legacy and prestige from overseas.

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One thought on “The Absurdity of MLS Nomenclature

  1. The funny thing about your criticism of RSL is that Real Kansas City would actually have made a lot more sense. Our MLB team is the Royals, our NFL team is the Chiefs, we had the Kings for the NBA, and a Negro League baseball team named the Monarchs. My main complaint with SportingKC (and the Comets) is that it does not fit the theme KC team names have had for decades.

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