Pre-amble: For those of you who have not had access to the internet or a bookstore for the past ten years, John Green is a decorated YA author and YouTube personality. He and his brother, Hank, are the heart of a passionate community affectionately known as Nerdfighteria. Together they have spawned a number of educational and service-based initiatives, such as Crash Course and The Project for Awesome. Most relevant to this post is the fact that John is an avid soccer fan. His well-documented exploits as a "semi-professional" FIFA player have seen the promotion of both the "Swindon Town Swoodilypoopers" and the "Wimbeldon Wimbly Womblys" into the Premier League. To top it all off, he is a life-long Liverpool fan.
In your January 5 Wimbledon v Fulham match (which you can relive above) you lament the fact that Steven Gerrard is leaving your beloved Liverpool to come play in MLS. I know that, as a diehard fan, it’s tough to lose a player like Gerrard. LA Galaxy fans, like myself, are currently suffering from the loss of Landon Donovan, who is to LA as Gerrard is to Liverpool, and (unlike Gerrard) Donovan is actually leaving the game altogether in the prime of his career.
This brings me to my point. You have a marvelous opportunity here to continue to follow Gerrard in this new chapter of his career. Major League soccer is a great league. The fan-base is solidly established and still growing. The atmosphere at matches often rivals and surpasses what you would find in many European venues. Finally, quality of play in MLS (and with the Galaxy, in particular) is excellent. The Galaxy have been the best team in MLS over the past six years, winning two Supporter’s Shields (for the best regular season record) and three MLS Cups (post-season playoffs). They have developed into the "Barcelona of MLS," playing a beautiful possession-style game that pundits have dubbed "tiki-taco." Last season, tiki-taco lead to goals like this one:
… and this one:
No doubt LA is a fun team to watch. However, having enjoyed all of your FIFA Wimbly Wombly matches, it’s clear that quality of play is not the deciding factor in whether or not you find soccer worth watching.
No John, you are an author through and through. You are compelled by a good story, and more than anything else, you love the complexity of the human character and the way the characteristics of each of us play out in our individual and collective lives. That, more than any other reason, is why you should continue to follow Steven Gerrard as he attempts to make a place for himself amongst his new colleagues.
The LA Galaxy is made up of a collection of interesting and compelling players and coaches who may even surpass your beloved Wimbly Womblys in complexity and diversity. To begin with, Gerrard is not the first European star to come into the Galaxy fold. David Beckham famously paved the road from Europe to MLS. I highly recommend you read The Beckham Experiment by Grant Wahl to get a taste of what it’s like to have a world famous multi-millionaire walk into a locker room where the majority of players are barely scraping by.
One great anecdote related in that book tells the story of when Beckham first met the team, and a young forward named Alan Gordon shook his hand and said "Hey, I’m Alan." When Beckham tried to move on to another player, Gordon held onto his hand and said, "And you are…?" At the time Gordon was making around $30,000 a year, living with multiple roommates and picking up extra work as a youth coach in order to make ends meet. Gordon is now a well-established MLS veteran with a wife and two kids. Some Galaxy fans, such as myself, can’t wait to see how Gordon welcomes Gerrard to the team.
The early Beckham years proved to be a tough transition for the Galaxy, but ultimately the organization straightened things out by adding another strong personality to the mix: Bruce Arena.
The former US Men’s National Team coach was hired as the coach and general manager. Arena is a curmudgeonly New Yorker known as much for his lack of patience with the press as his ability to win championship. He once told a reporter, "I hope you don’t really believe half the things you write."
He took over the team in the wake of a chaotic time in which Beckham and his team of advisors had been the de facto general manager for the club. During that period, the team had been entertaining, but had underperformed: missing the playoffs for three straight seasons. In the six full seasons that Arena has been in charge of the club, Los Angeles has three Western Conference Championships, two Supporters’ Shields, three MLS Cup Championships, and one additional appearance in the championship match.
However, Arena’s greatest attribute is the ability to foster a support culture within his organization. In the lead up to the 2014 MLS Cup final, he talked extensively about the family atmosphere of the club. He talked about how many players were welcoming new children into that family. You can hear the joy in his voice as he talks about those kids and what they mean to the players. He sees the ability to build a winning club that is strongly supportive of these families as a defining characteristic of his team.
This softer side of Arena has showed up in a lot of really meaningful ways over the years. When Mike Magee, an LA legend and MVP candidate, expressed a desire to move nearer to his family in Chicago, Arena orchestrated a trade that brought LA the rights to Robbie Rogers (more on that later). When Landon Donovan came to Arena and asked for time off to recover his love for the game, Arena accommodated him, allowing him to take an extra two months during the offseason to recharge his batteries. Then when Donovan announced his retirement last year, at the age of 32, Arena actually cried, saying "To see the joy he had today and also to witness the suffering he’s experienced throughout his career … to see that range of emotions and now to see that he’s happy again, it’s emotional to me."
In this last year, Arena has once again proven that he cares about his players more as people than as cogs in his well-oiled soccer machine by allowing two key players to move on with minimal compensation to the team. During the offseason he allowed Marcello Sarvas to go to the Colorado Rapids to improve his salary, and just last week, released Stefan Ishizaki from his contract to allow the Swedish international and his wife, pregnant with twins, to move closer to family.
Within the MLS community, players from other teams know that LA is a great organization to play for.
Last year defender AJ DeLaGarza and his wife discovered that their unborn son, Luca, had a congenital heart defect. This was a particularly poignant time for one of DeLaGarza’s best friends, Omar Gonzalez, whose wife was also pregnant with their first child. Omar and AJ had been teammates and roommates at the University of Maryland where they won an NCAA championship before both being drafted by LA. When Luca died less than a week after his birth, the team did not trivialize the event by "dedicating" their season to him. However, they wore black armbands with "Luca" inscribed on them, and often wore t-shirts dedicated to Luca and the DeLaGarza family that they would display after scoring goals.
As a fan, it’s hard not to become attached to these guys after watching them go through so much together.
I mentioned earlier that the Galaxy traded away Mike Magee in the midst of his MVP season for the rights to Robbie Rogers. I know that with the Wimbly Womblys, you have two fictional players named John Green who are "strike partners in life and in love." However, Robbie Rogers is the real life version of John Green (pixelated ones, not you… however, if there’s confusion, you really only have yourself to blame).
Rogers was a promising young winger player for the Columbus Crew SC when he got picked up by Leeds United and made the move to England. He had a rough go of it there, and at the age of 25 announced that he was retiring from soccer and came out as gay. On his blog he said, "I'm a soccer player, I'm Christian, and I'm gay. Those are things that people might say wouldn't go well together. But my family raised me to be an individual and to stand up for what I believe in." He has subsequently said that he retired from the game to "avoid the circus" and the pressure that would be involved in being a gay professional athlete.
However, shortly after his retirement, Landon Donovan reached out to Rogers and offered to sit down with him and talk through his options. Not long after that, the Galaxy started pursuing Rogers’ rights from the Crew. They acquired him in late May of 2013, and converted him from winger to left back, where he has become a key performer in LA’s tiki-taco possession style. If you haven’t read his book, Coming Out to Play, you really should.
So John, now your boyhood hero is coming to play football in the United States. He’s leaving the English team that you love, but he is coming to a team, and a league that is vibrant, exciting, and full joy and passion. He is going to shape the stories of the lives of his new coaches and teammates and they are going to shape his life. Whatever happens, it’s going to be a lot of fun to watch.
Hope you don’t miss it.