I’ve been wondering lately about developmental leagues and how they help or hinder the development of club culture and more specifically supporter cultures that surround clubs. In a sense, every league in the United States is a ‘developmental league,’ in that all players, even up to MLS, can still go further and bigger on an international stage. But I am mainly thinking about our clubs in the Premier Development League of the USL. How hard is it for supporters culture (a football lifeblood and an area that sets the sport apart) to spring up, grow and maintain momentum with sides whose stated or inferred goal is to prepare players for somewhere and someone else?
The Wash is David Falk’s take on the world of soccer in The WA.
The Kitsap Pumas are in the PDL, but they would love to not be limited to the eight players over the age of 23 that the league decrees. The Sounders U-23 are clearly in existence to guide players in the Sounders system with hopes one or two (DeAndre Yedlin) might stick in MLS. Washington Crossfire and the North Sound SeaWolves help college players stay sharp and fit over the summer.
These clubs play short 14-match seasons over barely three months a year. The Pumas add on a month of training matches and also come back over the winter for indoor soccer in the PASL.
Of these clubs, only the Kitsap Pumas have their own unique supporters culture. There are several groups that work together. Flags and specific chants, drums, picnics, etc. In other words, club culture enhanced by supporters culture. As I noted above, the Pumas are also the only Puget Sound PDL club that are trying to avoid the ‘development’ term built into their league’s name. Kitsap also pays its players a small stipend.
The Sounders U-23 have increased their attendance dramatically since they were once called Tacoma Tide FC. However, they still lack a dedicated, specific supporters group and culture. They struggle in terms of geography, aligning themselves with the general “South Sound.” They play at various venues, and sometimes the 253 or ECS will show for a match. Despite the fact this is not a “Seattle” club, the supporters sing “The Bluest Skies” and other Sounders MLS-related cheers.
The SeaWolves and Crossfire remain on the outskirts of soccer fandom in the region.
How much of the the struggle the PDL has in drawing fans and seeing supporter culture blossom is due to the developmental nature of their rosters? Can fans get behind guys that are “in training?” Can it be a lasting, growing love affair? Is there a possibility of a ‘pub culture’ for these teams?
In Bellingham the Pacific Coast Soccer League Hammers draw bigger crowds than all the Puget Sound PDL clubs. They have a supporters culture, a pub culture and are free of the ‘developmental’ label. Sure, everyone knows the PCSL isn’t MLS, but it is also a league with local talent and stars who return yearly. The Hammers, in their second season, rely on names like Kellan Brown to build their fan base.
I’ve got more questions than answers when it comes to these things. Clearly I appreciate supporters culture and the difference it makes in the sport. I wish we had more of that alongside these ‘player development’ sides. I like true football clubs, ones that exude that they are fine (supportable) as-is, and that the players they roster are here for a right-here, right-now experience that is unique, important, and should be viewed as such. In other words, worthy of the kind of adoration that comes from supporters.
That is part of why I have hopes that the National Premier Soccer League will eventually catch on in our region. I see what is happening in Detroit, in Tulsa, in Chattanooga. These places are exploding with supporters culture that could also be happening in Tacoma, Everett, Wenatchee, Olympia, Yakima, Spokane, Vancouver…
Is it the label of being a developmental club in a developmental league that is holding the U-23’s, Crossfire and SeaWolves back from attracting passionate supporters? Does the characterization color fan opinion before they even enter a local stadium?
I suggest it is at least worth asking the question.
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