By Tom Dunmore
I spent last week in Philadelphia at the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) convention, which plays host to, amongst many other activities, the Major League Soccer (MLS) and Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) drafts.
The NSCAA is the world’s biggest coaches organisation, with around 30,000 members, a large number of whom were present. If anyone thinks soccer isn’t a major sport in the United States, well, they obviously haven’t been to this convention. I’ve never seen so many tracksuits in my life.
The gathering also includes a massive trade show, where one vendor brought home to me the size of this gathering: he mentioned that he’d been at the baseball convention recently and, he thought, the soccer convention was even bigger. The trade show there itself was extraordinary, with everybody from AC Milan to the new North American Soccer League to Ferdie’s Soccer Magic Program hawking their product.
We were there, though, not for Ferdie’s Soccer Magic but for a couple of specific reasons: the MLS draft, naturally, but also to meet with supporters to discuss the issues we share in American soccer.
My trip began in a pub (of course). Myself and three other Fire supporters from Chicago landed in Philadelphia on Thursday morning at 9am, and after a cab ride from the airport past the smokestacks to downtown to drop off our bags at our hotel, we headed to McGillins Old Ale House where I’d been told the Philadelphia Union’s Sons of Ben supporters’ group were gathering ahead of the MLS draft in the afternoon.
And they’d certainly gathered: we arrived just after their formal meeting had ended, a hundred-odd of them singing songs for a team that has still yet to kick a ball. Steven Wells would have been proud.
Also there were a couple of Columbus Crew fans; so after a bit of banter, we raised some eyebrows by sitting down with supporters of our closest rival team for a few brews, and to discuss some issues common to all MLS soccer fans. We were appropriately joined for this informal gathering by a representative of the Football Supporters’ Federation (FSF) in England, Steven Powell, who had flown in to give us some advice: if in England, they’ve managed to get 170,000 fans from every team to join together on common causes, it’s quite obviously possible here too.
Steven, incidentally, is one of the most interesting men I have ever met: he has seemingly travelled to every corner of the globe, with a story about soccer and life for every occasion. A proud Welshman, we at one point passed a flag of Wales, and of course suddenly the Welsh national anthem filled the air — to be followed by the Argentinian anthem, as we passed their flag.
But I digress. Our most pressing purpose in meeting with other supporters from around the league and with Steve from the FSF was to discuss a proactive campaign a few of us in Chicago have been hoping to get going in North America, based on the model of Show Racism the Red Card in England. There have been thankfully few openly racist incidents in American soccer, as all of you here will know, but to say a few is acceptable is of course unacceptable, and as the sport grows, we feel we need to work together across the sport to ensure the diversity of the sport that is so obvious here grows at its core. A proactive campaign helps prevent a problem ever spreading from the fringes it exists at now in North American soccer.
We were extremely excited to find that all of the dozens of people that we spoke to about it, from supporters to players to coaches to league officials to journalists were fully behind the concept (which still requires much fleshing out for application as a campaign in North America). We met with members of supporters’ groups from Toronto, DC United, Red Bull New York, Columbus Crew and the Philadelphia Union, and all promised their support as we move it forward (we have also received positive feedback from supporters’ leaders at several teams that we could not meet with at the draft).
On Saturday, we managed to grab some precious time from the new president of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, Marcia McDermott, who was very positive about the idea, and we hope to work with them in the future on educational campaigns as they deem appropriate. Officials from MLS, WPS and the NASL were equally receptive.
If you’re interested in learning more or getting involved, sign-up for the mailing list at the newly launched Show Racism the Red Card North America website. The idea is nascent, and we want to shape it together with fans, players and coaches from across the whole spectrum of North American soccer.
Going forward, I see this as a stepping stone towards greater communication and coordination amongst fans across MLS, and at the lower tiers of the game as well. Steve from the FSF was inspirational in his discussion of the work that has been done in Europe: we are fortunate here to have the opportunity to start off cooperation at an early stage in the life of our professional leagues. As some supporters’ representatives met with MLS on Thursday evening to discuss shared concerns, it was apparent there was much we could do to work together for mutual benefit, from work on operational issues (away support travel, in particular), to promoting campaigns like Show Racism the Red Card, to communicating together with the league, to finding a common voice to push the culture of the league in directions supporters as a whole want it.
This will not be easy, to be sure, and will not be done without many naysayers and endless Big-soccer threads spiraling out of control. But my sense from the meeting of active participants in American soccer at the convention was the momentum is towards working together for the common good, the 90 minutes of play aside.