“When I think of MLS, it’s just kinda like…. I mean personally? … It’s the Crew because I’m from Columbus and that’s the team that we have here.” – Wil Trapp
This piece conceived and executed by John Nyen, Portland, OR
This moment should cascade over you, gentle reader.
Bathe in the recognition of it.
This column isn’t about that garden variety 30-, 40-, 50- or 60-year-old soccer crowd who went through indoor leagues, APSL, and the relatively barren landscape of soccer in North America post NASL and pre ‘94 World Cup.
This moment is about the youth of Canada and the United States, in and out of MLS markets, who have almost an unconscious association of Team and Town when it comes to soccer. There may not be king-sized blankets of rolling support yet, but the league is beyond mere pockets of it.
This unconscious association of Columbus to Crew and Kansas City to Sporting will do more for MLS and this sport in this geographical area than any number of crazy innovations or player signings.
Born January 15th, 1993, Wil Trapp is part of a new generation of young North American soccer player and fan.
At 19 years old, there is no point in Wil’s memory where MLS doesn’t exist.
It simply does exist, as it always has existed to him and his local team has always played in and around Columbus. From three years old to now, Wil can say that the Columbus Crew has been his team. He didn’t have to resort to scanning the dial for Saturday morning games broadcast with awkward accents and bloody-confusing phrases or flipping through channels with voluptuous women speaking Spanish for matches on confetti-strewn fields.
On December 13th 2012, Trapp signed a homegrown player contract with Columbus Crew after two years at the University of Akron and four as a pupil in the Columbus Crew academy. The Lincoln High School product heads into the 2013 season a professional soccer player, fulfilling a dream of his in more than one category. Not only does he get paid to play sports, but as well…. Wil signed a contract for the team that he has watched and loved growing up.
That wasn’t possible if Ronald Reagan was ever your president.
Wil bleeds yellow, and when he dons the Crew kit he’s bringing not only his new found professionalism but 19 years of ingrained passion. Wil is a Columbus Crew fan because he grew up in a suburb of Columbus, a town called Gahanna, which is about 15 minutes from Crew stadium.
Head down the 317, onto the onramp at the 670-270 exchange, and West to I-71 North. Done.
Now, Will Trapp’s unique perspective.
Nyen, TSG: “Do you know when your first Columbus game was?”
Trapp: “I mean I can’t remember, like obviously, the specific game… I wanna say it was probably 96, 97?”
Nyen, TSG: “So you were right there at the beginning?”
Trapp: “Yeah, three or four years old.”
Nyen, TSG: “Your grandfather was a semi-pro player?”
Trapp: “Yeah, he’s Greek, he was born in Greece , he came over and just played in.…. I’m not sure how to put it exactly, but the Germans had a team, the English had a team, all the immigrants had their own international league”
It becomes cliché to say that certain people are born into soccer, within North America. It is almost a way of dismissing the impact of a person in the United States choosing to love soccer over football or baseball; or a person in Canada loving Dwayne De Rosario over Sidney Crosby.
When people can’t explain why they picked soccer over American football, baseball or hockey, the given reason must be their parents or their peers were soccer players.
Now, this isn’t necessarily false.
However, as with the eternal nature versus nurture debate there is the argument that it takes both sides to create a person and their interests. It isn’t just the people who shape you but as well the location and time in which you grow up. The specifics that surround that for the current young soccer player and fan are far different than they were even 20 years ago.
Perhaps it is just as simple as how passion is transferred, sometimes through a mentor, a father or mother or sibling, but often passion gets passed to you through the simple process of absorption with those environments around you. Within this latter theory, the very fact that professional soccer at the top level within North America exists allows it to grow (slowly) within each continuing generation of North American’s that continues to be born around the time of the start of the league and afterwards.
Nyen, TSG: “Is this (soccer) something that has existed within your family life? I mean, do your mom and dad watch the game?”
Trapp: “It was never, like I mean with my grandfather obviously it was big but with my parents not really. My mom didn’t play and my dad played recreational. So I mean he didn’t, he wasn’t too into it. He played football and basketball in high school.”
Nyen, TSG: “You attend a game when you’re three years old, did you go semi-frequently… like every once in a while? Would your parents take you? When’s the first game that you can remember going?”
Trapp: “I mean, it was probably when they really built the new stadium, and it was around 2001, 2002? And we had season tickets and we would go. Those were like the games that I really remember, being there… knowing the players and the field.”
Nyen, TSG: “Did you ever do the Nordecke, did you ever actually get into a supporters group?… I mean it seems that at your age you probably didn’t have a chance.”
Trapp: “Yeah….. no… I was a little too young for that. But I mean our season tickets were kinda like the opposite of them, on the same side but the opposite corner basically. We were pretty close and could experience it a little bit, the chants.”
Soccer (sport in general) survives on the passing of tradition and stories from generation to generation. Specifically soccer’s different team traditions survive, thrive and spread because of that tradition.
When you talk about the singing of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at Liverpool, there is a shared cultural tradition that has been passed down since the early 1960’s. When you talk about the singing of “You Are My Sunshine” at Portland Timbers games we are talking about a tradition that has been passed down since 2004. While seemingly young in age, this tradition and other moments of interpersonal cultural sharing are what help coagulate support and drive the connection between fans, team and individual players.
With some MLS teams being around now (in terms of games played) for 17 years, we have the ability to see not only fans growing up knowing the traditions, songs, legends and history of their teams but the players as well. Tifo now is to US fandom as Vegemite is to Australia.
Trapp: “Yeah, I’d say so. I mean, even more so now because of the Home Grown signings, I think. I mean you have kids who played for the Crew academy and have gone to games since they were young. I feel like the fans are really going to be able to relate. It’s hard to go to the games when you don’t know the people and now it is one of those things where ‘Oh, Chad Barson? I went to high school with that kid… I was his fifth grade teacher….‘ that kind of stuff and ‘My kid might play soccer, and we’re going to the game and we’re going to buy jerseys’. I think it is definitely going to make the Crew bigger and bring Columbus closer together for the Crew, as well as around the state. The Crew have been branching out, they have teams in Michigan, they have teams all over the state, Cleveland as well. Yeah, I think it’s a great thing and I’m excited.
Trapp is part of that first generation of MLS players like Steven Gerrard or Danny Welbeck who were born in a town, lived in that same town and now have the option of playing for their boyhood club.
The European cliché rooted firmly now in a sport that’s now firmly rooted.
This translates to the fan-base in North America as well, as most older fans (unless lucky enough to have been born in a city that had a NASL team) have “picked” our chosen soccer side. There are droves of Manchester, Barcelona, Liverpool, Madrid, Roma, Arsenal and Ajax fans in North America. So many of these fans will say things like “It’s the play” or “It’s the players” but quite often it is because there was gaping hole in their fandom that was never filled when they were younger.
That is not to discount quality of play, but the very origins of sport is a binding to a community first as defined by commonality of geography, not necessarily even the game played.
With the ability of MLS to simply exist as an entity, you begin to have a chance at those 3- to 6-year-old kids that they will grow up appreciating Barcelona and AC Milan, but may passionately love Columbus Crew and Sporting Kansas City because the stadium is down the street or Matt Besler walked into their neighborhood coffee shop.
Nyen, TSG: “You started playing for the academy when you were 15, right?”
Trapp: “Yeah, freshman in high school.”
Nyen, TSG: “Did they pick you just out of high school, just from performances? Did someone come up and say ‘we want you to play for Crew academy?’”
Trapp: “Well the thing was….. I was actually living in Cleveland. Brad Friedel had his residential academy up in Lorain, Ohio. And he had a partnership with the Crew, so everyone who was at the academy who was of age (under-16 and under -18) was basically on the team. There were tryouts and such but, so, I made the tryouts, and after the academy closed down I came back to Columbus. There was really no change from being there and being home except for a two-hour drive twice a week.
When Landon Donovan was born in 1982, the NASL was just two years away from finally imploding. During his childhood he couldn’t have had a local team to pull for because there really wasn’t a local team in the area. Professional soccer at the highest level in his country wasn’t available. While people think of him for his time with the United States Men’s team, or the LA Galaxy, or the San Jose Earthquakes, these weren’t his boyhood dream clubs. Landon is synonymous with the Galaxy because he is the Galaxy and he plays for the Galaxy.
When Donovan did an interview back in 2002 for the San Jose Metro, he said the following about his soccer heroes: “When I was growing up, there wasn’t a person like that–someone you can idolize or connect with or identify with,”.
That same year, a handful of States away, a 9-year-old Wil Trapp watches Brian McBride running the lengths of the field in Columbus and just maybe thinks to himself about how great it would be to emulate the iconic forward right in his backyard.
Nyen, TSG: “When did you have an idea that you might be able to do this professionally?”
Trapp: “Obviously when I went to Brad Friedel’s camp that’s what was involved, to become a pro and to go into MLS or to go overseas…….. But realistically? To think when I could go contribute was probably my freshman year, spring of my freshman year? I was convinced.”
Nyen, TSG: “That’s college or high school?”
Trapp: “This is in college, and I came to terms that I could go and I could really contribute. I had always wanted, obviously what player doesn’t, to make it; but it hadn’t really formulated where I saw myself. I think last year was when I really was like ‘ok, this is what I want to do and all the tools are here now”
Having been signed to a Home Grown Player contract as a sophomore, Wil’s timing calibrates perfectly. However, what Trapp’s signing portends is something so much deeper.
Speculation on television ratings, or the financial aspects of the game, questions on game attendance from a short term perspective, all of this typically relies on information that is given within the confines and spectrum of an MLS that is currently here, inhabited by people passionate enough about soccer to adapt to a team.
The real difference happens when the kids that are born into the league start maturing, growing up, spending time and money on soccer and having kids of their own.
Now supporting the Timbers, Sounders, or Kansas City isn’t just a singular and unchained effort; it is your father’s and mother’s team and your grandparent’s team.
They will tell you stories of the time in which Sporting Kansas City was named the Wizards, played at Arrowhead Stadium and Jimmy Conrad and Josh Wolff wore shirts that looked like someone drizzled rainbow sherbet over old Houston Astros uniforms.
They will tell you stories of the time when Clint Dempsey wasn’t just a retired player from the Barclay’s-Emirates-Eithad-Samsung Premier League but played for the New England Revolution who somehow managed games with a 3-man backline.
They will tell you about the one time when Mike Magee was pulled from the outfield to play in goal for the second half after Josh Saunders received a red card. They will tell you about Chico, about Giselle, about Howie, about Kirk Urso and of the enduring legacy of Bobby Rhine.
And they will tell you about watching Brian McBride run the field in Columbus, Ohio before there was a Columbus Crew Stadium, as they sat on their parents lap soaking in the sights and sounds a league that would, 16 years later, become their home.
And they will tell you that MLS, to them, is the Crew because that is their team, this answer not just from someone who lives and dies with the team on the sidelines but from someone who spends his time between the lines, a new development for this young league.
Sometimes we live through these golden moments only able to parse and absorb them much later in retrospect. Then there are the fleeting, surreal, lucky times where they present themselves in real time with clarity.
This is one of those splendid few moments.