Commonwealth Stadium, the enormous, concrete, spiritual home of my soccer childhood. (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)
I was born near the soccer hotbed of Edmonton, Alberta. Growing up I wasn't really a fan of the local game but, to the extent I was, it was for the indoor Edmonton Drillers of the old NPSL (this being the NPSL that existed from 1984 to 2001, not the NPSL that existed in 1967, and these being the indoor Drillers of the last years of the twentieth century rather than the outdoor Drillers of the first North American Soccer League or the current indoor Drillers in what's left of a western Canadian indoor league... good god, these disclaimers get complicated fast). Outdoor soccer basically didn't register for me until the Edmonton Aviators came onto the scene in 2004 and, well, you know how that story ended.
I moved to the west coast while my hometown was still soccer-free, found myself drawn into the Vancouver Whitecaps world half-against my will, and before long was waving scarves and calling perfect strangers "fat bastard" with the best of them. Then Edmonton, city where I got my soccer education and which I still call "home", got another soccer team that's in year three and going strong. And today they're playing each other.
In Europe or South America it's easy. You support the club your great-grandpappy supported or the club where you grew up that's been around since the First World War. In North America, loyalties must necessarily be more fluid. I can't go back in time to not live and die with every insane Dave Gantar whistle back in 2009, but I also can't ignore the creation of my new hometown team.
It's difficult to explain to somebody who hasn't felt the same thing. It's not "sports bigamy" in the usual sense; it's not "oh, I cheer for the Blue Jays but when they're out I cheer for the Red Sox" or anything like that. It's two separate paths through the middle of my heart, one leading to Edmonton and the other leading to Vancouver, and each as strong as the other until the dreadful moment when they collide.
I think that, over the years, many a North American has felt the same way I do today. So many clubs have formed and folded and relocated over the past twenty years that a list would grow tiresome. If you're a 32 year old Calgarian you've seen between three and five professional soccer clubs in your lifetime, depending on how you're counting, and zero today. That's not too atypical.
It's naive in the extreme to think that nightmare is over forever. Once upon a time the North American Soccer League was booming, the American Professional Soccer League had a sustainable model, the Canadian Soccer League was losing money but still promising, and I could go on. There have been many false dawns for North American soccer stability, and as good as MLS and the modern NASL look there are still some awful points of danger which could bring the whole system crashing down. At 26 years old, the current Vancouver Whitecaps are almost unfathomably ancient by the standards of Canadian or American professional soccer, but can we really bet money that they'll last 26 more?
So entire generations, inevitably, grow up with divided loyalties. They're not Eurosnobs who follow Toronto FC in the newspaper but only buy tickets for Liverpool; true fans of real soccer who are just caught in the middle. It may be a soccer phenomenon unique to the United States and Canada; one of our few cultural contributions to the world's game. I can't help but feel that it makes things poorer, and yet I admit to a certain thrill in attending a soccer game that, for once, I literally cannot lose.