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MLS needs more villains

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Everyone loves a good villain, but MLS is a little short on them. Enter Austin FC.

MLS: Austin FC-Press Conference Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

So much of the best of sports is rooted in hate. Those teams that seem to thrive on the suffering of opposing fans, those players who thrive on shouting and jeers. You know them. The Pittsburgh Steelers. The New York Yankees. Tom Brady. Soccer, of course, has them, too. Every self-respecting league needs a Stoke City. Every Rangers FC needs a Celtic FC and every Mohun Bagan needs an East Bengal. The world is simply better when there’s a Jose Mourinho to hate. Or a red card to Joey Barton.

Sometimes, you hate them because they are rich and successful, like Real Madrid. Sometimes, you hate them because they are rich and successful upstarts, like Chelsea. And sometimes you hate them because they are River Plate and you are Boca Juniors. Sometimes, you hate them because they are dirty, like Sergio Ramos. Of course, it’s always different when it’s your team and your players. Nobody at Barcelona ever seems to mind so much when Luis Suárez is scoring for them, after all. And that goes for international soccer, too. It’s all well and good to root for Germany when you are a neutral, but one never quite feels the same bitterness when they see their beloved England lose to, say, Belgium.

You simply need these dastardly figures and fearsome/loathsome clubs in order to make the highs feel high enough and the lows properly hopeless and bitter. It’s all well and good for a club like Borussia Dortmund to punch above their weight and snag the Bundesliga title, as they now seem to be doing. But, winning that title in May will feel all the more sweet knowing that it comes with the suffering of Bayern Munich, the team that stripped Dortmund of her best players again and again. What is Liverpool’s title run without the tragedy of Mohamed Salah in the Champions League final and the World Cup? Jurgen Klopp’s joyful and happy demeanor and team is simply so much more fun and palatable with a dose of redemption in there. Villains work the other way, too. The whole of Spain delights while watching Real Madrid finally, finally, slip from their demonic stranglehold in the Champions League. And, without the bickering between Paul Pogba and Jose Mourinho, Manchester United’s suffering wouldn’t have been hilarious anymore. If they had continued to lose, they’d simply be a sad exercise in fallen grandeur. In other words, they’d be Arsenal. Every Yin needs a Yang, just as every earnest (and clean shaven) Pep Guardiola needs a chaotic Marouane Fellaini (may his hair rest in peace).

Alas, it seems MLS comes a bit short on this fiendish front. Sure, there are some notable rivalries. There’s the Cascadia Cup, the Atlantic Cup between D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls, and the heated battles between Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact. But, unless you are a fan of one of those teams and the rivalry comes around, there’s not really a lot of reason for intense anguish or glee for another team. Historically, there have been moments that have threatened to really turn someone into a proper villain, but haven’t been able to cement that place. There was that one season where the San Jose Earthquakes stampeded to the Supporter’s Shield with a roster that was one part Chris Wondolowski, one part rugby team, and one part blond afro. There was the streak between 2009 and 2014 where it seemed like the LA Galaxy would win everything forever. And then it ended, with apparently nobody realizing it until it was long gone. Now, the Galaxy are simply kinda sad and pitiable. Sure, they are prone to mockery, but their failure is more like absurdist comedy at this point, not pure and unadulterated schadenfreude. At this point, the best candidates, the likes of Carlos Ruiz, Nigel de Jong, and Steven Lenhart, have all left. And that has led, in general, to an air of niceness about the league. MLS simply has sanded down its edges too much.

The villains that remain simply aren’t good enough. Will Johnson certainly is a villain, but not the fun kind. Nobody wants to root for him. If I’ve learned anything from writing here at SSFC, it’s that Michael Bradley is certainly hated enough to be counted as a villain. But he’s simply no fun to hate: he’s too serious and polished for that. But I believe MLS can do better than that. Sure, Felipe is plenty despised. But nobody’s heart aches to see his face drop and his name dragged through the mud quite like mine aches to see those self important, pretentious, moneyed snobs at Barcelona get properly humiliated. (Pardon me a moment, I need to go punch something.)

And that’s where Austin FC enters.

On Tuesday, MLS and Anthony Precourt came out and announced Austin FC as the 27th team to join the league, scheduled for 2021, behind FC Cincinnati (this year), Nashville SC, and Inter Miami (both 2020). It just so happens that, thanks to Anthony Precourt and the Save The Crew fight, Austin FC will likely come into the league as the de facto most hated team in the league. And I cannot wait for that to happen.

Back in September, when I spoke of how the potential relocation of Columbus Crew SC was a shambling and lazy mess that threatened to derail MLS and the U.S. Soccer Federation, I ticked off a small group of Austin FC supporters. They seemed to take my points about the process being woefully behind schedule for play in 2019 as a personal insult. And that wasn’t my intent at all. I meant no malice, merely indiscriminate neglect and apathy for a group of fans of a club that didn’t exist, a group whose self gain hinged on the pain and devastation of others. Don’t get me wrong, the badge is still lazy and dull. But that bland oak tree is far less offensive now that its roots aren’t based on pulling out somebody else’s club.

However, you, my dear Austinite, should not merely accept my non-apology. No. You should, instead, let your anger fester and grow. Rage against such nay-sayers as me. Turn to the dark side, for that fury is your strength. After all, you know that truth. Forget the Crew. What’s really important is that you got your team. You got what you wanted. You got what you deserved. You won.

When Austin FC finally takes the field, when you take your place on the stage, you know all those outsiders will jeer and boo. And, let’s be clear here. That hate is deserved. You lot conspired with that fiendish backstabber, Anthony Precourt. You’d be fine with seeing the Columbus Crew, dead and bleeding upon the ground. So what? Who cares for the haters? What do they know? They are all lighted fools, the lot of them. Poor players strutting and preening across the stage. There is no room in this game for such frivolous sentiment. It’s take what you can grab and leave nothing left. Every match is a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. They will chant and shout, but your sound and fury will consume them all. Yes, the world will hate you. But you can scheme and connive and throw the world into chaos. Twist your knife in their back. After all, you know that true happiness is not merely victory. True happiness is to see your enemies suffer, to see them broken and in anguish before you.

Why am I saying this? Why should you trust my words? I will tell you the truth, for I am an honest man. It is because I want the drama. I want to see shakespearian tragedies play out across the field. I want to see more despair and anguish and hate, pure and deserved hate, when I watch my MLS matches. I wait, with baited breath, for the day when Austin FC, struggling and out of playoff contention as all proper expansion sides should be, drives a knife into Columbus’ playoff dreams on Decision Day itself. I want to be watching that tragedy, to see that fury and anguish, but, most importantly, to taste the drama. So Austinites, a plead with you! Be our Iago. Let us hate you as only you can be hated. Wear your hearts out on your sleeves. Please, put on a show. Be our villain.