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Why club over country is the strategy for club support

It’s hard, but where MLS is most popular the local team is way bigger than the national team.

MLS: Portland Timbers at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

I went to Seattle last weekend to take in a must-see event in American soccer, a Cascadia rivalry game between the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers.

This was my first time in Seattle for a Sounders game, and I haven’t been to a Timbers game in Portland yet, so to some extent the experience is incomplete. But even with one trip under my belt, a pretty clear hypothesis emerges.

What is the most popular soccer team in the United States? The Mexican National Team. After that? Across the board, between diehard soccer fans and casuals alike, the U.S. National Teams as a group are most likely second.

National teams are fun to root for because first, they encompass an entire country, and there’s a tribal element to nationalism that many people feed off. The Olympics are fun because you get to root for your country and instead of creating divisions around states or cities, the residents of a given country can come together on a rare occasion and find common ground.

Now, what does this have to do with MLS? I think the popularity of the Sounders and Timbers in their localities makes the National Team affiliations weaker in comparison to most places. Of course, I’m not saying that Portland or Seattle residents don’t care about the USMNT/USWNT or Mexico, but my sense is that they care less.

It’s the traditional “club over country” vs. “country over club” argument. Fans can obviously be fans of both their club team and the national team, but when push comes to shove, nearly everyone has some kind of preference, even if it’s slight.

And here’s where Los Angeles Football Club comes in. They’ve been trying to woo as many fans as possible before they kick off in 2018, and so having booths at local national team games and “hosting” the Mexico friendly like they did last week makes sense from a square one perspective.

But the way to truly recreate the atmosphere of a Sounders-Timbers game, especially with a smaller stadium than CenturyLink Field, is to fill it up every game and to get as many people as possible to be “club over country” fans. That’s going to require some big national team fans to take a step back on that fandom and become LAFC fans first and foremost.

How does LAFC do it? It’s a question nearly every American soccer team contends with. Obviously in any fandom, there’s a core group of diehards, some general soccer folks, and some casuals who follow along when times are good or they go to a game. Being in Seattle and seeing the Sounders signs all over the place, the volume of Sounders gear being worn around town, and previously going to Portland prior to their MLS era and seeing how much the Timbers were talked about, even then, makes it clear that “club over country” breeds the intense atmospheres every team craves at their stadium.

And threading this needle isn’t easy. You can’t tell fans, “Yo, nationalism is divisive! Be tribal in a whole new way by going all in on our team!” It has likely happened pretty organically in the Pacific Northwest, and the national teams have largely stayed away from those regions for a long time. In contrast, Mexico and the U.S. routinely (usually more than once a year) play in Southern California, which helps keep those connections to the national teams.

I’m sure none of this is new to LAFC’s marketing team. But to me, the future trajectory of appealing to fans seems pretty clear. The national teams will still be around, and the fandom is likely not going anywhere. But to really foster deep ties to a new club, over time fans need to treat their club team like the national team, and lessen those national team ties. Yes, fandom of club and country can exist side by side, but club over country has to be the ultimate goal for clubs, here in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

What do you think? Leave a comment below!