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The old Buddhist koan* suggests that sometimes the question asked is the problem.
Or, as data processors would say: crap in equals crap out.
People often ask when Soccer will be successful in the United States, or when the U.S. men’s national team will be successful.
In a way both those answers are the same. They are both successful, and perhaps neither will ever be successful, depending on how you define that term.
If you think that the U.S. men’s national team needs to win the Fifa World Cup in order to be successful, then you simply don’t understand the fact that in the history of the World Cup only 8 teams, out of roughly 200 currently ranked teams have won it.
That means teams such as the Netherlands, Mexico, and Portugal are unsuccessful. So maybe a “deep run,” such as to the Semis (since the U.S. Made it to the Quarterfinals in 2002) would make the U.S. successful.
Again, out of the 32 teams who make the tournament each year, only 4 make the Semis, and the U.S. has not done so since the very first world cup in 1930.
Now you could argue that it’s the winning of lesser tournaments (European Cup – Greece, Russia, and The Netherlands) or “good showings” in the World Cup that can result in a team being successful, but quantifying those results can be difficult.
The U.S. may never win the World Cup, or may not do so for a very long time. So what lesser tournaments can/does the U.S. Compete for? The Gold Cup (which is now regularly hosted by the U.S., and which the U.S. has won 4 times); the Copa America (U.S. has only been invited three times, but did manage a fourth place finish in 1995); and the Confederations Cup (U.S. were runner’s up in 2009, and finished third in 1999 and 1992).
The U.S. should be considered a successful program if it continues to perform well at the Confederations Cup, begins to perform well at Copa America (should it be regularly invited to attend), and consistently make it out of their group stage at the World Cup.
Similarly, MLS may never be a top 4 league in the U.S., or maybe it already is , but even if so, it will never overtake Baseball or the NFL.
Some commentators seem to believe that in order for MLS to be successful, it has to compete with Baseball or the NFL.
This is complete nonsense – it isn’t just opinion polls of U.S. sports fans, or television ratings, or even attendance that determines MLS ultimate success.
Defining success so narrowly determines the outcome. MLS simply needs to have a growing following where they can continue to bring in good revenue streams from attendance and television viewership, and not allow their expenses to so dwarf income as to destroy the league.
Whether they are the top or top four events in their market is not the issue, success needs to be defined more openly. What is MLS trying to do: bring in better foreign talent, develop better U.S. talent, and to compete internationally. To the extent MLS has enough income to continue their efforts in those regards they are being successful.
MLS doesn’t have to be a top-four league in the U.S., though it arguably is or is close to becoming one, and the U.S. men’s national team doesn’t have to win the World Cup, for either to be successful.
By defining success in this way, fans and commentators are really setting both entities up for failure, and they are simply asking a wrong-headed question.
* The first koan most Zen Buddhists learn is called “Mu”. It goes like this: A young monk asks an older monk, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” The older monk answered simply, “mu.” “Mu” doesn’t mean yes or no, instead it means something along the lines of “it is not.”
The idea being that the question was wrong, a thing doesn’t have Buddha nature or not have Buddha nature, if one truly understands the nature of Buddhist existence, one would understand that all things are part of the great expanse of the universe, so a Dog, a tree, me, you, this computer are all part of that impersonal vastness.
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