Welcome to the Fart Machine

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It all started with a tweet on my personal handle. In hindsight, I should have put some more thought into that tweet, and certainly more than 280 characters. But, depending on how you use social media, and Twitter in particular, it can be a useful sounding board for such embryonically posted ideas that can eventually develop into bigger projects. This tweet would prove to be one such idea.

I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid, I had to build these massive outlines for every paper I wrote in high school, with scores of letters, roman numerals, and numbers for every sentence in every paragraph. And that looking at that tweet, I can see a format for this article as well. So let’s get to the meat of this piece: what is lower tier soccer doing currently, is it effective, and what should we be doing. But trolls, I want to state that I am not the arbiter of truth here, just an editor of a startup website offering my opinion. Of course, no troll is going to read that sentence and approve, so here we go.

The State of Lower Tier Soccer Twitter

I think there’s several categories of lower tier soccer twitter at the moment. First, there’s the leagues themselves. They promote matches, retweet club material, and publish puff pieces on the players and clubs. Nothing heavy hitting, but a necessary part of brand management. Then there’s the clubs, who are desperately seeking to elevate their brand awareness, generally through advertising matches, selling merchandise, and promoting their own players. After those there’s a layer of fans who will RT these clubs, while also posting pictures and commentary from matches. And once we get past this layer of the onion, we hit the part of twitter I think deserves some focus and analysis. Certainly I thought it was worth tweeting about.

This layer is the activist segment of soccer social media. Generally their activity has “meta” vibes to it. They are making an argument, they are criticizing, they are pointing out the flaws in the system. This segment of twitter is strongly opinionated and willing to yell down disagreeing members. There is no room for centrist thinking in this layer. You are or are not, nothing in between. I’d like to dissect what I think the key arguments of this group are, but with one clarifying caveat: these aren’t the only things they discuss online when it comes to soccer, only what drives the base and fires up the likes and retweets.

1. Pro/Rel Zealotry

I will state, before anything else, that I am definitely for promotion relegation, in theory and in practice. Without a doubt it’s a must for a functioning soccer pyramid and I’m pulling for that every chance I can. But this point of contention has become the boogieman of soccer twitter. It’s the “abortion” argument. Everyone has an opinion and, if your opinion is different, you are wrong and will be yelled at until you give up. Without naming names, I truly believe there are people with notifications for the phrase “pro/rel.” They pop up in every conversation to offer their two cents and smash the nonbelievers. These types, and they know who they are, are doing more damage to the cause than they have ever done to strengthen it. Yelling down opponents isn’t the way to come to a consensus or a compromise. Absolutes and extreme positions drive people away and harden opposition. It feels good to have the profiles that agree with you retweet and like your posts, but long-term growth isn’t coming from these types of posts.   

2. Criticize USSF

Without a doubt I got caught up in this during the run up to the election of Carlos Cordeiro. I drank the Wynalda Kool Aid and was going to battle online, much as I have in the past for political personalities (Bernie Sanders, Beto O’Rourke). So I’m also guilty of this. A point a friend of mine made in a recent podcast was that the people most irritated by the results of the election were those that understood the process the least. I think that’s accurate. All of twitter felt strongly in favor of darkhorse candidates (including myself), but none of us had a vote, so we felt like the election was “rigged.” It wasn’t rigged, we just didn’t have a vote. Beyond the presidential election, I think it’s natural to attack “the man” when you feel disrespected, ignored, and trampled down. Who else is to blame for you situation than those that are in power? But again, shouting against the powers that be in Twitter universe is mostly smelling your own farts. Cordeiro isn’t reading your tweets, probably doesn’t care what you think, and I seriously doubt he’s been stung by your sweet burns.(are you sure he isn’t?)

3. Mocking MLS

Ah, the hated single entity that is ruining everyone’s lives, MLS. If you are for Pro/Rel, it’s easy to blame Don Garber and MLS for keeping it from happening. So most choose to mock MLS as a shitty product not worth watching. The arguments are almost usually accompanied with GIFs showing how the level of play is garbage. So, I’m going to split the baby here, which will please no one. MLS would be greatly improved by dividing up single-entity, getting rid of the weird salary system, and opening up to promotion/relegation. On the other hand, the level of play in MLS has really improved over the last 5 years, as clubs have begun focusing on talent recruitment and development. There are some exciting stories in MLS, Alfonso Davies being sold to Bayern Munich, Josef Martinez scoring goals at will, Zlatan (yeah, I don’t need to say more about Ibra, love the dude). And, if I could stress just one point, the people that want to follow that league aren’t bad or evil or fill in the blank stupid comment. They are soccer fans, who, by the way, could potentially support their local lower tier club if you weren’t shitting down their throats on Twitter.

4. Hating on Alexi Lalas (or any other establishment voice)

I think that this argument is similar to the one I mentioned in the USSF point. Alexi Lalas isn’t a bad guy. He’s doing his job. He didn’t get hired by Fox to talk about what’s going on in your local rec league. His job is to promote the product they air, which is MLS and USNT. If you don’t like his takes, that’s fine, but demonizing him isn’t going to change a thing. And we should expand this argument. I appreciate that Rob Stone wear lower tier kits occasionally, but we shouldn’t expect him to discuss lower league matches, that’s not his job. One of the problems with lower tier Twitter is the confusion between passion and paid gigs. This website, as it exists currently, is a passion project for the writers involved. We donate our time and energy because we love soccer and want the lower leagues to be successful. The few paid jobs that exist in this country for soccer commentary are taken up by those that have successfully marketed themselves and worked their way up. Fox, ESPN, the Athletic, and MLS are the ones offering cash, so why would you expect those personalities to be focused on causes and clubs that aren’t being covered by those outlets.

I want to reiterate, there’s nothing wrong with having strong opinions about any of these issues. I do think, however, that using these subjects to beat the shit out of those that disagree with you is pointless and counter productive.

The Effectiveness of the Fart Machine

I’m a big fan of a phrase I used earlier, “smelling your own farts.” There’s something about that image that makes me giggle, but also gets to the point of all social media. We play to our bases, we say things hoping for approval, we crave attention, it’s part of being human. We’re a tribal species and that aspect of our humanity is reflected in our social media. True loners don’t use social media.

So the series of questions that should be asked of all our lower tier soccer activity online, does our current approach actually work? Is it pushing the conversation forward? Are we creating a new paradigm that fits our stated goals? Do all those tweets have any effect? Or are we just getting high on our own farts?

So I want to be careful in answering this question of effectiveness, because one might argue that how we define effectiveness could change the answer. If you define effectiveness as expressing my rage and discontent at the state of X (Alexi, USSF, Pro/Rel), then congratulations! On the other hand, that’s a low bar and most of the social media warrior types cloak themselves in the mantle of activist. Activism has aims far beyond than simple expression. So it may be convenient to argue that expression is an end, it certainly isn’t the end that most pretend to desire.

If the question of effectiveness is defined as real change, than lower tier twitter activism has failed utterly. The issue of pro/rel (at a pyramid-level, anyway) has progressed not a bit. Aside from a couple of fringe candidates mentioning it in their drive to gain votes during the USSF Presidential campaign, the conversation has gone nowhere. Those with power dance around the question, argue against its viability, or ignore it altogether. Last year, Don Garber spoke on the subject: “It’s almost ironic to hear you talk about the excitement because the hardcore fan here who primarily follows the European leagues, they think that this idea of promotion and relegation is the only way to have a fair and effective competition. It just doesn’t work. It doesn’t resonate with us.” Think he’s reading your tweets? Think he’s concerned about your opinion? Sadly, the obvious answer is no.

On the subject of USSF, the answer is also no. The election of Carlos Cordeiro was a massive rebuke to those that were pushing substantive changes. The vast majority of soccer twitter beat up on Kathy Carter, due to her SUM (Soccer United Marketing) ties, and Cordeiro snuck in the back door, tying up the athletes council vote. The Vice President under Sunil Gulati, he clearly had no intention of correcting the issues brought up by so many critics, many of whom used Twitter to do so. So did all those complaints about USSF change anything? Not a bit.

 Don Garber (Image curtesy of MLS.com)

Don Garber (Image curtesy of MLS.com)

Attacking MLS is clearly a waste of time, as they hold all the cards in the contest. Rage against the night, but the night don’t care. MLS continues to expand, gobbling up markets, shifting clubs across the country, pulling strings at USSF (maybe?). Don Garber is not hurt by your stones, he’s laughing on his way to the bank.

And finally the derision heaped on Alexi Lalas. When I first began following American soccer, I too used to beat up on the red headed one. But you understand that he’s winning when you do that right? He’s not bothered by your ridicule and your complaints only acknowledge that he is the voice of American soccer journalism, whether you like it or not. Attacking media personalities may earn you retweets, but it’s tired shit to beat up on a guy over and over again. We get it, the tv makes noises you don’t like, move on and find a productive argument.

So when faced with the reality that empty criticism of the powers that be and the lack of strength to change things, what should a lower tier soccer fan be doing? I’ve got some suggestions!

Moving Forward

One of the best parts of my job (hobby?) is meeting the club owners that invest their time and money into their teams all over this country. Unlike owners of professional teams, most lower tier owners are losing money and desperately fighting for the well-being of their players. I’m sure some could offer up some bad apples, but I’ve had really great experiences with too many owners to believe they are in the minority. So this portion of the piece is informed by the conversations I’ve had with them, liberally seasoned with my opinion. How to support local soccer?

1. Spend some Fucking Money

I get it, times are tough, no one is rich. Well, 1% are, but I digress. Maybe buying a kit isn’t a possibility, as most run $50-$65 each. Most clubs are selling t-shirts and scarfs priced around $20. And that might seem like a tiny thing, but it’s a numbers game. If 50 people buy a $20 shirt, that’s $1,000. And, not to get too far in the weeds, the profit margin on a $20 t-shirt is probably much better than on the $50 kit. The war in American soccer is an economic one and we vote with our dollars. If you aren’t willing to support a club with your money, you aren’t really supporting local soccer.

 Who's banging the drum? This guy!

Who's banging the drum? This guy!

2. Go to a Match

Before the explosion of the UPSL, maybe some of us had excuses about not going to a local match, but that time is past. The soccer map is exploding with clubs all over the country, probably one in your backyard. I live in El Paso, Texas and in the last year we’ve added two UPSL sides (Southwest FC and FC Grande) and a soon to be named USL team. That’s not even mentioning all the local Saturday teams that play and all the soccer action across the border in Juarez. So many twitter warriors mock MLS for empty stands, are their butts in the seats for their local side?

3. Share your experiences on social media

Of course, I would come back to social media! Without a doubt social media is an awesome advertising space for all our interests, so why not share soccer. I love some of the zealots sharing historical posts about America’s soccer heritage. It’s vital that we educate ourselves and everyone else on how rich the history of the beautiful game is in this country. Invite your buddies to join your SG by posting shots of being crazy in the stands. Take a picture of your local club with all that beautiful green grass on a Saturday night under the lights, maybe someone shows up next week! Promote what you love.

Fire up the Fart Machine!

- Dan Vaughn

Lola Vaughn