Why I Love Lower League Soccer

It's just better

While we wait for the Legion to give us some information on what the offseason is going to look like – which hopefully will be in the next few days if history is anything to go by – I thought I would present you all with a little think piece. It’s about a revelation I had regarding my personal preferences on watching this little game we call soccer.

Simply put, I have come to realize that I absolutely love the lower league game. And no, I’m not going to call it “minor league”, which is a term I find frankly rather insulting. Moreover, in US soccer there is no direct connection between Major League Soccer (which is itself a ripoff name) and the leagues below it in the pyramid. Major League Baseball has oversight over Minor League Baseball, so for that sport at least the nomenclature makes sense.

Growing up in London and for most of my life after that I lived mostly in cities with top level pro teams in several sports or at least close enough to such locations and in cities with major college programs. My family is from the East Ham area of London, which is, strangely enough, right next to West Ham, so you know what my family’s team was. As a kid I decided I would also follow Manchester United, just to exercise my typical English bloodymindedness. And piss off my parents. Both those teams of course spent most of their history in the top tier of English soccer (although both did drop down for brief periods in my youth). My introduction to US sports was Chicago in 1985. You all know what happened that year (a certain Michael Jordan was just starting his pro career, naturally). That’s a full suite of top tier teams. The original North American Soccer League had folded the year before, so soccer really wasn’t a thing back then though.

Moving to Birmingham in 2000 I found myself for the first time in my life in a pro sports desert, if you will. I had no affiliation with either UA or Auburn (and Bama sucked in the early 2000s anyway). I couldn’t watch my beloved (but mostly inept) Bears without forking over outrageous sums for NFL Sunday Ticket and I had zero interest in the Falcons. For a goodly stretch my sports attention was focused on my sons, the oldest playing football and wrestling, the younger two playing soccer.

Then, in 2017, MLS came to Atlanta. I was all over that. I was at the first game and within weeks I was writing for the Dirty South Soccer blog, which follows Atlanta United. I was at the MLS Cup championship game the following year, and the US Open Cup championship game in 2019. I was all in for the Five Stripes.

But at the same time as that MLS Cup year pro soccer was about to come to the Magic City. I was a Hammers season ticket holder in 2018 and signed up for Legion season tickets the day they became available. I’ve remained a season ticket holder ever since (although I spend most of my time down on the field!). Obviously, I now run this blog supporting the Legion.

And I am utterly in love with the Three Sparks.

Am I still a West Ham United fan? Yes. Am I still a Manchester United fan? Of course. Am I still an Atlanta United fan? Absolutely. Huh. Three Uniteds. That’s ridiculous. But here’s the thing – I barely watch any of them any more. Even after attending or watching Legion games and at a minimum watching extended highlights of every USL Championship game, I do have the time. I just don’t watch them much any more. When I do watch English soccer, it will be Birmingham City (when they are on ESPN+ or when I can find them through a VPN. Shh. Don’t tell). Last year I added to that by subscribing to the National League broadcasts to watch everybody’s favorite lower-lower-lower-lower league team, Wrexham.

That last is just plain fun (and through the FX docuseries the team has also awakened the American consciousness to the concept of promotion and relegation; more on that in a bit). Birmingham City’s connection to the Legion began in the crazy 2020 season and for all their faults I’ve come to really love them too (I have been to the English version of the city, albeit only for a few hours).

Its not that the Legion is my local team. Well, clearly it is, but that’s not the only reason for my attachment. Exposed to lower league soccer in a material way for the first time in my life, I’ve come to understand that it’s the game as well.

There’s a purity to the USL system. Strip away the big money. The outrageous ticket/parking/concession prices. The endless hype. The massive egos. The corruption (yeah, there’s that). And, in the US especially, the monopolistic management of the top tier. Get rid of all that and what are you left with? The game. And people who love it. The players. The staff. The fans. And those last may be more educated about the game than fans of top tier teams. More committed at least. And because of all that, there is much more immediate connection to the city. Well, in the Legion’s case, for sure. It is patently obvious that the players love the fans as much as the fans love them. The team overall is also pretty active in the community.

That’s also true over in England, where teams below the Premier League are generally in a similar situation. Although the money is bigger than in the USL Championship, the relative poverty is the same and the community attachment ids as well.

There’s also the opportunity for giant killing. We got to see that this year with the defeat of Charlotte FC and (by rights) of Inter Miami as well. Other than college teams scheduling creampuff opponents, you don’t get that in any other sports in the US, and it’s glorious. And if and when the USL finally gets around to pro/rel (there should be a decision on that soon), we’ll have the excitement that can bring as well. Hopefully not a situation the Legion should ever find itself in, but for the weaker teams in the Championship and teams in the tiers below it will provide a whole new motivation. And bring the US game closer to the world’s game. It would be cool if we get it here before Mexico reinstates it (which will be no earlier than the joint World Cup year, 2026).

So that’s how I choose to watch soccer now. I love the Three Sparks. I love the Blues. I love the USL. And, you know what, I don’t think I would have it any other way.

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