The soccer v football debate still lingers on in MLS | Football

Originally, there was not a single football club in Major League Soccer. Indeed, when the league was launched back in 1996 not one of its 10 founding members labelled itself “FC”. Now, 25 years later, 10 MLS clubs use the term, plus Inter Miami, or Club Internacional de Futbol Miami to give them their title. It will be 11 when Austin FC join MLS next year.

When MLS jokingly tweeted that “it’s called soccer. If anyone disagrees, reply to this” last month, more than a few people pointed out the disagreement within the league’s own ranks.

It should be noted that there are also three franchises tagged as “SC”. In fact, there has been a notable swing back to the use of the term recently, as demonstrated by Nashville very deliberately featuring the letters on their crest for their debut season in 2020. The Columbus Crew even added SC to their name in 2014. “Soccer club” hasn’t quite been phased out just yet.

All this underlines MLS’s difficult relationship with the word soccer. Of course, the Football v Soccer debate, and the insinuation that usually comes from it, is an old one. It is the instant retort of someone who wants to engage in stereotypes. The argument goes: Americans don’t even call it “football”, how can they claim to know anything about the game? Don’t mention that the “soccer” was actually originally used in England in the 19th century and that it is still used there to this day – Soccer AM and Gillette Soccer Saturday anyone?

But how clubs, fans and even the league itself feel about the word is interesting. Why do MLS teams so frequently opt for the English interpretation? What’s wrong with being a soccer club in North America where the phrase reflects the native lexicon?

For a long time American soccer types felt great unease over their own authenticity. It’s why almost every voice heard on soccer coverage in the States – until midway through the noughties – was a British one. Paul Mariner has made an entire career in the American soccer media from merely being a British guy who sounds like he knows about soccer.

MLS has had to strike a tricky balance between adopting the long-established customs of a sport the rest of the world had a 50-year head-start on and appealing to the archetypal American sports fan – see how clubs make both transfers and draft picks. This balance isn’t always an even one, though. It often seems those who run the game in Canada and the US are uncomfortable with all the Americanisms that come with being a part of this particular sporting landscape. More than a few are afflicted with imposter syndrome.

When it comes to FC or SC there is disagreement between franchises on the best way to go. In the same year that Nashville SC entered MLS, the Chicago Fire added FC to their badge. It is right, however, that franchises should have the freedom to choose whichever name they feel will best engage fans. MLS’s centralised structure mustn’t be allowed to curtail this, even if the inconsistency between the number of FCs and SCs paints an uneven landscape. 

The 1994 World Cup may have played a role in the proliferation of the term soccer, with University of Michigan professor Stefan Szymanski noting in his 2014 paper “It’s football not soccer” that the word appeared twice as often in the New York Times and The London Times that year, when the USA hosted the tournament, as in each of the last five years. For context, usage of the word “football” barely increased. 

Of course, MLS was a byproduct of the 1994 World Cup, as stipulated by Fifa who demanded the United States establish a professional league, and so the linguistic legacy was carried. Somewhere along the line, though, an unease crept into the American soccer psyche, an anxiety that it needed to be taken seriously by outsiders. With every club named FC rather than SC the idea that only football and not soccer matters has been perpetuated. If MLS had been founded a decade or two later, would it have been named Major League Football instead? And would it have been any more successful for it?

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