Commentary

What happened to MLS team nicknames?

Photo: Paul Rudderow

It’s August 13, 2020. You’re watching the new MLS franchise in St Louis unveil its colors, crest, and name live on Twitter. They’ve gone with St. Louis City F.C. 

“Not bad,” you think. But something tugs at the back of your mind.

“Have I seen this before?”

The thought creeps into your head, and you quickly google “New MLS team name?”

Before your eyes, a constant stream of “F.C.” s and “City” s appear, along with dates so far in the future you can’t even begin to process them. Years like 2021 and 2022. You’re confused and overwhelmed. 

“I thought this was MLS!” you think in a panic. “What happened to the weird names? The strange crests? The crazy jerseys? Will we make it out of 2020?!”

Relax.

“What happened?” you want to know.

MLS 3.0 happened. 

If you’ve spent enough time on MLS Twitter, Facebook, or Reddit, you’ve likely encountered the “.0” discussions when it comes to Major League Soccer. If you haven’t, let me break it down as simply as possible.

  • MLS 1.0: 1996-2006. – The league is established and proven viable.
  • MLS 2.0 2007-2014. – The league expands, attempting to draw a larger audience.
  • MLS 3.0 2015-Present. – The league continues to expand, refine its brand, and establish itself as a top league globally. 

I’m sorry that you’re now even mildly familiar with these terms, but they’re essential to know when it comes to the branding of teams in the league.  

MLS 1.0 existed to grow the game and league to American audiences, specifically an audience that wasn’t very familiar with soccer. Teams were given names that sounded inherently American, as to make them more appealing for American audiences. (I mean really, you can’t get much more American than Dallas Burn, can you?) Out of the first ten teams in the league, only one (D.C. United) followed a more European convention when it came to naming a soccer team. 

By MLS 2.0, the league had become sustainable, and the goal was to further expansion. In 2007 there were still only 13 teams in the league, and a vast majority of the U.S. found themselves without a soccer team in their region, let alone their state. MLS quickly set out to fix this, establishing seven new clubs in seven years, adding some of the biggest media markets in the county to their list. They took the same approach when it came to naming and branding these clubs, continuing to use wonderfully strange names such as “Sounders” and “Impact”. Drawing in Americans (and Canadians) that were mostly unfamiliar with soccer was still MLS’s goal during 2.0, and for all intents and purposes, it worked. The names became a bit less 90’s, but still remained fun, typical sports names.

And then came MLS 3.0.

MLS 3.0 has precisely the same goal as 1.0 and 2.0. Draw in new fans. However, with soccer no longer being an unknown entity, in the states, and quickly becoming the most popular sport amongst youth, a new goal had arisen. Convert the massive base of European soccer fans in the U.S. from European club fans to MLS club fans. The best way to do that? Make your league relatable and cool. How do you do that? First things first, give things a cool name. 

The first real attempt to “make things cool” can be seen clearly in New York City Football Club. NYC FC’s ties to Manchester City of the English premier league were emphasized heavily, and for a while, it was easy to argue that NYC FC was the most European feeling MLS, team. They had the branding, the stars, the baseball stadium. That being said, it’s been a bit of a rocky ride for the club, and it’s success as an expansion club is hard to judge, primarily because of the failure to procure a soccer-specific stadium. But if NYC FC was the prototype, LAFC is the well-oiled machine. 

LAFC is what MLS dreams of in an expansion club, and shows just how close MLS is to perfecting the formula. Playing their first season in 2018, they quickly challenged the L.A. Galaxy for most popular club in the city. Placed in a gorgeous stadium in L.A. proper, given a clean, sexy branding, and drawing in just enough star power to get people excited, LAFC is the future of MLS to a tee. 

At the center of LAFC’s success? I suppose you could point to management, league favoritism, success on the field, or a whole plethora of other valid factors, but for the sake of argument. Let’s say it’s the branding. MLS tried two clubs in L.A. once, and we all know how that worked out. 

While obviously, LAFC’s success isn’t due to their branding and name, it can’t hurt. It’s simple, inoffensive, and easy to root for. In MLS 3.0, MLS is looking to ditch its retro 90’s feel, and clubs like LAFC are going a long way to help.

Since 2015, all eight expansion clubs have ditched the traditional American nickname, and opted for some form of “European” branding (if you can even call it that at this point). The league is perfectly balanced at the moment between teams with and without nicknames, at 13 each. When Austin FC enters the league next year, that number will become tilted 14 to 13, and it’s unlikely to see it ever returning level. After Austin comes Charlotte FC, and then St. Louis City F.C. The only future team with a nickname will be Sacramento Republic F.C., entering the league in 2023 with St Louis. 

So, what happened to the weird names? The same thing that’s always been happening. 

MLS wants a bigger audience, and nicknames aren’t cool anymore.

5 Comments

  1. OneManWolfpack says:

    I kind of hope the “Americanized” names come back. They’re absurd but unique. Between every new team being an FC or SC and Adidas making every jersey white and boring as hell… this league needs some truly Americanized sports stuff back in it.
    .
    On the other hand, the last thing this league needs is more teams, without some sort of pro/rel concept (not starting an argument). 30 teams by 2023 is certainly ENOUGH. So I guess it is what is or now.

  2. i hate fc

    it has about as much character as the dark/light no color league mandated uniform schemes

    Both Charlotte and St. Louis had soooo much to work from to create a good name that involved both the history of each city and their character of locality.

  3. Cardinal sin says:

    St. Louis should have been the Arch-ers.
    Their loss. First of many.

  4. The Messiah says:

    Ok first of all, mostly every MLS team has “football” in its name. Yet everyone in the U.S calls it “soccer” so that’s a bit off. Is MLS desperately looking to catch Europe’s attention? If so, adding more teams to the MLS will just weakened the league, it’ll be more boring and way less experienced than it already is compare to other leagues. We should solidify a certain amount of teams. And from that start a 2nd division for extra (weaker) teams that aren’t at capacity yet, but still have a chance to get into the 1st division once a year. What America wants is a show/entertainment not a sport. And that to me will not work.

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