Toronto FC’s run to the MLS Cup final was unprecedented territory for the club - not only with regards to on-field achievement and success, but with what happened off the field, too. Both attendance numbers and TV ratings broke all previous marks for the Reds and the casual fan was definitely interested.
But what about in June or July, the lazy dog days of summer, when the club is playing their third or fourth game of the month at home?
My co-season ticket holder is a four-year-old. And, needless to say, he can’t make every game with dad.
I’ve tried calling quite a few friends to come and attend a match with me as a result, and as long as I can get them to BMO Field they all leave satisfied with the product and ask when the next game is that they can tag along to.
However, every now and then I get a sceptic. The sports fan who just hasn’t made the leap of faith to MLS or TFC.
The ones who contend that MLS is an inferior product and they’d rather stay home to watch a re-run of a third division game in Germany. Well... I have no time for those people. If you want to deny yourself quality sports entertainment because of a North American inferiority complex, that’s your prerogative, I’m never going to try and sway that guy.
The ones who I find are easier to compel are the sports fans who contend that they’d love to give soccer a try, but they’re not usually a fan of the game. And for one specific reason: they can’t stand the diving or faking of injury.
Those guys have an actual argument.
Those guys, MLS can draw in.
Recently, English soccer’s governing body, the Football Association, announced that it would consider introducing retroactive bans for diving. It’s a promising start, but the proof will be in whether it is actually implemented consistently. It’s one thing to do it when a 19-year-old from Stoke City dives in a match against Burnley, and another entirely when Chelsea’s Diego Costa does so in a match at Old Trafford.
MLS, meanwhile, needs to pick up this ball and run with it.
North American sports fans are accustomed to physical action in their leagues. Unfortunately, this stigma of European players being divers and complainers comes from decades of fans growing up on hard-hitting NFL commentary where physicality is praised. Or, in the case of many Canadians, xenophobic commentary from an old guy in wild suits who preaches from his pulpit about hockey on Saturday evenings.
The argument has very little credence, and I won’t print the misogynist terms that sports fans sometimes use when describing soccer players, but the perception exists. And unfortunately, perception can become reality.
If MLS is able to change this opinion, the league may take a step forward in making more inroads with casual fans.
First, give every team the ability to submit any complaints of diving to the league’s offices after games. Whether the action resulted in a foul or penalty or not, the league needs to review it and determine whether a player went down without any help. If it is determined that the player dived or staged an injury to draw an advantage, have the player suspended for the next game and dish out a nominal fine. A repeat offender would be hit with a escalating punishments.
There is only so much of this that would go on before the players learned to stay on their feet.
Secondly, instruct the referees to breathe for a second when a player goes down. TFC fans all can recall the game in which Benoit Cheyrou was shown two quick yellows and sent off. Fans were upset and the issue wasn’t whether Cheyrou had committed the fouls, or whether they were warranted - it was how quickly the decisions were made. The ref came running over from 30 yards away to reach down and show a yellow. Take a second, consult with the fourth official and the linesmen and use the best available information before arriving at a conclusion.
With improved refereeing and an ability to police the game even after the 90 minutes has ended, MLS can make a name for itself as a worldwide leader in dealing with a problem that afflicts the sport.
No one wants MLS to become the ECW of soccer or some crazy-violent league from minor hockey lore. But the physical play of Premier League is one of the biggest reasons for its success worldwide and there is no reason that MLS cannot, in some ways, mimic that style. A reputation of being a league that is policed well, and where fakery is absent, may help draw in fans who turn off their TVs when they witness something like this:
I mean, unless it’s Sebastian Giovinco in the penalty area - by all means, then, show the opposing team the red and award the kick...