I wish for many things.
I wish poverty ceased to exist. I wish grad school wasn't so hard. I wish I won the lottery. I wish I had gotten hooked on "Lost" five years ago, and not five weeks ago.
I also wish that the same mystique and sunshine that surround baseball’s spring training every year would envelope the MLS preseason. You know: the pop of the ball pounding the rawhide under warm sunny skies. The crack of the lumber as another fastball ends up in the palm trees or cacti. The light banter. The passivity of it all.
And for soccer fans, what could be more welcoming after a cold (not to mention brutal, for many of us along the eastern seaboard) winter devoid of MLS? It’s one thing to log countless hours in front of the tube watching foreign football during the offseason. It’s another thing to have the ability to circle the calendar every winter knowing that the patter of the ball bouncing from boot to boot; the obligatory shouts in the midst of a vast open space; the pang of a cracking shot off the woodwork are all familiar harbingers that winter will soon melt away into spring.
And I totally know that we're talking two different animals here. The two could never be confused (unlike Shalrie Joseph and Asante Samuel - and I know I’m the only one). But both are sports that have long traditions here in the States, regardless of what the detractors/soccerphobes/haters say.
So, under these perpetually gray mid-winter skies, what tangible sign of hope is there for the MLS fan?
Some clubs, like the Fire, FCD, and the Red Bulls actually saunter down south to warmer locales a large portion of the preseason. But for many, the preseason is spent stuck indoors, in environments about as sterile as a pharmaceutical laboratory.
Therefore, a similar tradition must be initiated by MLS. While the climate-controlled environments NBA and NHL typically keep their doors closed (literally) for the preseason, MLS should adopt the MLB and NFL approach of promoting its preseason fare.
Therefore, I submit a modest proposal:
1. All MLS clubs and its respective youth academies must designate a preseason "home" in either Florida, Texas or Arizona.
No shifting locales like a money-hungry paparazzo. I mean, how can you establish a rhythm if a club is constantly shuttling north and south, east and west, stateside and abroad? It just seems silly to waste time packing and moving every few weeks. Therefore, each club shall designate a singular base of operations from the first day of the preseason up until one week prior to First Kick.
2. This home should remain consistent year to year.
Therefore, multi-year agreements - preferably five-year terms - with local colleges or academies must be made to ensure a familiar destination for the club and fans every year. This also creates familiarity with the locals. How many baseball fans root for the Red Sox in Ft. Myers because they train there every spring? Lots. And how many snowbird Sox fans fly to Ft. Myers every year? Thousands.
3. At least four clubs must occupy a geographical zone designated by MLS.
For example, four teams must occupy the Central/Southern Florida (UCF, USF, FSU) zone. Same goes for other regions like Central Texas, Arizona, and/or Northern Florida. Therefore, there's never an excuse for MLS clubs to simply mail in preseason matches against local colleges or "collegiate all-star squads." Which leads me to the next prong...
4. A preseason schedule that must consist of at least four preseason matches between MLS clubs.
I don't care if it's a series of friendlies or an inter-regional, double-elimination tournament. Every preseason match should provide an accurate gauge of each club's talent. This can only be done against MLS competition.
5. All training sessions and matches are free and open to the public.
Just like the family-friendly fare of the former Reserve League, each session and match should have space for fans, family, and Fido to sit back and watch their favorite club in action. As a bonus, players stick around for a post-match clinic and autograph session for the kiddos under the warm, southern sun. For MLS fans young and old, does it get any better?
Of course, these suggestions are entirely based on the model that baseball employs (after all, you're too smart to assume these were purely original ideas). But remember, traditions create nostalgia. Nostalgia breeds loyalty. And what, for many baseball fans, is more nostalgic than spring training?
Plus, what player wouldn't want to train outdoors, rather than an indoor turf bubble or center?
See? It's win/win for everyone.
Because after all, soccer fans deserve the same glimmers of hope afforded to baseball fans. It's been a long and drawn-out winter for us, too.