Time defeats tradition as Fulham’s MJ statue comes down

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Traditions become traditions the same way that people win dance marathons. Traditions simply outlast detractors. A tradition simply keep going, through all of the “that’s stupid” and “we should stop doing that” and “can’t we just find something new?” that everyone casts its way. Tradition’s aren’t necessarily SMARTER or BETTER than the fads that disappear. Traditions are just more stubborn.

I remember the first time I heard Kansas’ “Rock Chalk Jayhawk” chant. It is really kind of a creepy thing. Don’t get me wrong, I love it for the history and the passion it evokes, it’s absolutely one of my favorite things in college sports. But objectively, let’s be honest here, it’s a bit disturbing, you know, the way everyone does those yoga motions and moans “RAAAAAAAAACK … CHAWWWWWWWWWWK …. JAYYYYYY … HAWWWWWWWWK …. KAAYYYYYYY … YUUUUUUUUUUUUU.” If you saw and heard people doing that anywhere but a basketball game, you’d be convinced you walked in on a weird cult meeting.

But it has lasted. They’ve been chanting Rock Chalk Jayhawk since the 1880s. At no point through it all has one generation of kids said, “Naw, let’s try something else.” That’s what makes it a tradition. Conversely, a few years ago Kansas tried this other chant where they brought out a garbage can they called “The Sound Machine” and told fans to cheer when the lid was open and stop the instant the lid was closed. If I remember right, they called it “Kansas’ newest basketball tradition.” This game but absurd effort lasted exactly one game.

MORE: Michael Jackson statue set to be removed from Fulham FC

Was the Sound Machine any less viable a concept than Rock Chalk Jayhawk? Maybe, maybe not. But it did not come close to standing the tradition time test.

That’s really what’s happening. A tradition time test. A tradition survival of the fittest. Time is a harsh judge. When I was a kid, we used to attack each other with various insults based on “Welcome Back Kotter’s” classic “Up your nose with a rubber hose” banter. You know: In your ear with a chandelier. In your face with a a brown briefcase. Up your butt with a … we fully expected that stuff to last forever. Shockingly it did not. Time took one look at that bit of stupidity and said, “Um, let me just erase that nonsense from the world as soon as possible.”

Time defeated parachute pants. Time defeated golf knickers. Time defeated the tennis victor leaping over the net and baseball players leaving their gloves out in the field between innings. Time defeated people dressing up and wearing cool hats to sporting events. Time defeated barefooted kickers and long hook shots and high jumpers who tried to leap forward over the bar and the Macarena. Charlie Finley gave the Kansas City A’s a mule mascot named Charlie-O. Time stepped in. Bill Veeck tried to dress up the White Sox in shorts. Time stepped in. The Yankees used to play “Cotton Eyed Joe” at every seventh-inning stretch. Time stepped in.

But here’s the other side of time: Once something DOES defeat time, once it crosses that finish line and become a tradition — not unlike that cartoon bill becoming a law in “Schoolhouse Rocks” — it becomes pretty close to invulnerable. Take the Washington football team. They’re just sticking with the name. They know the history. They know the meaning. They know that Washington Hogs would be such an awesome name. Doesn’t matter. It’s a tradition. And like all traditions, once they’re in, they’re in. Traditions get “Favored nation” status. Time has been trying to wipe out the wave for decades … hasn’t done it yet.

All of which leads to this sad bit of news: They’re moving the Michael Jackson outside the stadium at Fulham of the Premier League.

I like Fulham. A few years ago, I asked Brilliant Readers to send in their suggestions for which Premier League team I should root for, and the Fulham fans were convincing. Fulham is the friendly team in London. While Tottenham and Arsenal rage at each other and Chelsea spends billions of dollars, Fulham just plugs happily along at Craven Cottage, the Wrigley Field of England, which is charming and old and right by the River Thames. Everyone has a good time. Fulham has never actually won a Premier League championship or any other major trophies, but they keep going, happy to be a part of things. optimistic that someday they’ll have their big moment, welcoming to all. They are the only Premier League team to have a section reserved for neutral fans who just want to enjoy themselves. Yes, I like Fulham a lot.

About two and a half years ago, they put this Michael Jackson statue outside Craven Cottage. It’s not a statue as you might imagine one would look outside a stately place like Craven Cottage — you know, made of white stone or dark bronze or whatever. No, really, it looks more like something you would see in Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. It’s colorful and gaudy, MJ is holding a microphone and wearing one glove and tight pants and apparently is about to moonwalk.*

*Another tradition time defeated — we used to try and moonwalk all the time!

The statue is there because Fulham’s former chairman, Mohammed Al-Fayed, wanted it there. He was friends with Michael Jackson. He brought Michael Jackson to a Fulham game, I guess, or maybe even more than one, and the King of Pop had a good time or something. To be honest with you, I don’t see why this kind of madness doesn’t happen more in sports. If I spent hundreds of millions (or a billion) to buy a sports team, you better believe I would do all kind of crazy stuff like this. I’d put statues of Bugs Bunny and Duane Kuiper and Ric Flair at the entrance. I’d have them play “Badlands” twice every game. I’d have my baseball players wear those old wool uniforms and my basketball players wear those really short 1970s shorts every so often. The question to me is not how Bill Veeck or Charlie Finley ever got to own baseball teams. The question is why there haven’t been many more like them.

Anyway, Al-Fayed loved Michael Jackson, and he wanted to do something to honor his memory, and so he had this statue done and placed outside the stadium. It made no sense to anyone. I doubt that there’s a clash at any sports venue in the world quite like that ridiculous Michael Jackson statue outside charming old Craven Cottage. It would be like putting a giant Rubik’s Cube outside Fenway Park or a statue of a box of Jujubes outside Lambeau Field. It was patently ridiculous, and there was an uproar about it for a while … but that’s the amazing thing about being the owner. Nobody really could do anything about it. Al-Fayed wanted a Michael Jackson statue there. And so there was a Michael Jackson statue there.

This year, Al-Fayed sold the team to American automobile parts mogul Shahid Khan — who also owns the Jacksonville Jaguars — and almost immediately questions about the statue came up. Khan, apparently, had no idea what kind of hailstorm he had entered. He seemed to be leaning toward taking it down. Al-Fayed said if Khan even tried it, he would personally come and shave off Khan’s somewhat famous mustache. Then there was some indecision. Some worry. Khan at one point talked about praying for answers. He seemed generally distraught about it all.

And here’s the thing: I was kind of rooting for the statue to stay. It’s not that I like the statue — I don’t. It’s not like I think it belongs — I don’t. But the way I figure it, if that statue could have lasted for even five more years, it had a real shot of becoming a tradition. And once that happened, it would have to stay. People would get used to it. More, they would unconsciously begin to accept it. And then, even people who DESPISE it would fight for it. It would be a tradition. For generations of kids, that weird Michael Jackson statue by one of England’s most cherished stadiums would not represent the King of Pop but instead it would be a symbol of Fulham soccer. It would come to represent not the Thriller video and Billie Jean and the 1980s and general strangeness but great goals and outings with family and spectacular victories and horrible defeats.

Alas, it is not to be. Apparently the statue is moving to one of Al-Fayed’s countless other properties. They got rid of it just in time, just before it started to stubbornly become a tradition. And so instead of becoming an odd but gradually beloved part of Fulham Football, it will instead be remembered as this extremely weird thing one of Fulham’s more eccentric chairmen did back around 2011 or 2012. And time wins again.

MLS attendance up, TV ratings lag as US mulls future

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NEW YORK (AP) Major League Soccer’s attendance is up and fan interest is booming, even if television broadcasts are far less popular and some young Americans would rather play in Europe.

[ MORE: Caleb Porter out as Portland Timbers head coach ]

MLS averaged 22,000 in attendance for the first time in its history this season, ranked among the top seven leagues in the world. The league is set to add a second Los Angeles franchise next year, announce two expansion cities next month and at some point finalize David Beckham’s long-pending Miami club.

But viewers averaged under 300,000 for nationally televised regular-season matches, fewer than the average for a New York Yankees game on their regional sports network. Several top young Americans, such as Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie, have chosen to forego the MLS to play in Germany and test their mettle in a more demanding environment.

And worst of all, the United States – whose roster was filled with MLS stars – failed to qualify for next year’s World Cup, ending a streak of seven straight appearances in soccer’s showcase.

“We need to use this failure as a wakeup call for everyone associated with the sport at all levels to ensure that we have the right processes and mechanisms and development programs and leadership and governance in place to learn from this missed opportunity to ensure that it never happens again,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said this week. “Part of the maturation of becoming a soccer nation is recognizing that qualifying for the World Cup is not a birthright. It’s something you need to earn, and we are unfortunately in the company of some great soccer nations, like Italy and Holland and Ghana and Chile – Copa champions – that have also not qualified.”

MLS playoffs resume next week after the international break with the first leg of Conference Championships. Columbus – whose owners are threatening to move to Austin, Texas, in 2019 – hosts Toronto, while Houston is home against Seattle.

“MLS and soccer in the United States have made great advances in many areas. But its promoters have found that the abundance of existing legacy sports leagues that have the highest quality of athletes on the planet creates a ceiling on professional soccer in the United States,” said Marc Ganis, president of the consulting firm SportsCorp. “It has not, and perhaps never, will supplant any of the major legacy sports unless and until the quality of play and players increases significantly and the U.S. men’s team in particular is more competitive and, in fact, wins some of the major international tournaments.”

Momentum of playoff runs was interrupted because of World Cup qualifying, and the culmination of the league’s season competes for attention with the NFL and college football among the wider American sports audience.

“Long-term demographic things like CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and stuff with the NFL says maybe there is a long slow decline around some of that, but when you’re starting from where they’re starting, that’s going to take a generation,” Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said. “We’ll grow because most of the immigration to the U.S. is from soccer-playing countries and the country is going to grow.”

Launched with 10 teams in 1996, two years after the U.S. hosted the World Cup, MLS expanded to 12 but cut back to 10 after the 2001 season. There has been steady growth since expansion started in 2004. Next year’s total will be 23, already well over the norm for a first division, and the league is planning to settle at 28.

Infrastructure could not be more different than in the early days. The league has 14 soccer specific stadiums, two more renovated for the sport and one built with both the NFL and soccer in mind. Three more soccer stadiums are under construction.

Average attendance is up 60 percent from 13,756 in 2000, boosted this year by 48,200 for Atlanta in its opening season. MLS trails only the Germany’s Bundesliga, England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Mexico’s Liga MX, the Chinese Super League and Serie A, with Italy’s first division ahead by only 22,177 to 22,106.

But that has not translated yet into big television ratings.

ESPN averaged 272,000 for 30 telecasts this regular season on ESPN and ESPN2, and Fox averaged 236,000 for 33 broadcasts on FS1 and Fox. In addition, Univision is averaging 250,000 viewers for its Spanish-language MLS telecasts.

But the Premier League attracts a larger audience, averaging 422,000 on NBC, NBCSN and CNBC, even though many matches are on weekend mornings.

“We’re not the Premier League,” Garber said, pointing out last year’s MLS Cup drew 1.4 million viewers on Fox. “The fact that we’re able to generate ratings growth across all of our partners here and in Canada, and dramatic growth in Canada, is a positive. So we actually, we and our partners, feel pretty darn good.”

Player payroll has increased as MLS keeps adding what it calls Targeted Allocation Money. While several older American players have returned to MLS from Europe, many of the teens viewed as the future of the U.S. national team have gone abroad as they emerge from the MLS youth academies, which have been mandated by the league since 2007 and produced more than 250 players with first-team MLS contracts.

Pulisic, at 19 already the leading American star, left Hershey, Pennsylvania, to sign with Borussia Dortmund at age 16, able because of his grandfather’s Croatian citizenship to play in Europe before he turned 18. McKennie left FC Dallas’ academy when he turned 18, signed with Schalke and scored in his U.S. debut this week.

“I didn’t want to become one of those guys that started in MLS and said, man, I wonder if I could have made it to Europe,” McKennie said. “I wanted to spread my wings and see what I could do over here.”

Forward Josh Sargent decided against Sporting Kansas City and is waiting until he turns 18 in February to sign with Werder Bremen.

“I think I’ve just always wanted since I was a little kid to play in Europe,” he said.

Tyler Adams, who also made his U.S. debut this week, played his first MLS game with the New York Red Bulls last year at age 17 and became a regular this season. Garber says “Tyler Adams probably is playing more minutes today for the Red Bulls than he would if he was not in Major League Soccer.”

Adams is happy but thinking ahead.

“Obviously a goal of mine is to play Champions League one day, and obviously the MLS is working its way to becoming one of the top leagues in the world,” he said. “Maybe one day I find myself in Europe. You never know.”

Sometimes big contracts only stall a career. Matt Miazga left the Red Bulls to sign with Chelsea in January 2016, saw little playing time and didn’t get in games regularly until late that autumn during a loan to the Dutch club Vitesse Arnhem.

“If your only desire is to go to Europe, there are flights leaving every hour on the hour from JFK and LAX and everywhere in between,” said retired American defender Alexi Lalas, now a Fox analyst. “But getting to a place in Europe where you are making good money, where you are playing consistently, where you are learning, where you are valued as a player and as an American player, where you are able to adapt and adjust and live in the other 22 1/2 hours that we often don’t talk about, that’s whole `nother story, and there’s not a lot of flights leaving that have that on the other end.”

With the U.S. soccer community in turmoil following the World Cup failure, some have called for MLS to guarantee playing time for young Americans.

“Our coaches universally believed that that was not the best way to ensure we had the highest-possible product quality to be able to have competitive games and to drive the growth of our fan base,” Garber said.

AP Sports Writer Tim Booth contributed to this report.

Bartra error emphasizes Dortmund’s latest Bundesliga woes

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Christian Pulisic sat out Friday’s 2-1 Dortmund defeat against Stuttgart. Coincidence? Perhaps.

However, the club’s struggles are apparent as Dortmund’s winless run extended to four matches and their gap from Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich could be up to nine points by the end of the weekend.

[ MORE: Chris Coleman steps down from Wales, expected to take Sunderland job ]

BVB was without several of its top talents for the match, including U.S. Men’s National Team star Pulisic and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but it’s Dortmund’s defending that continues to be the side’s biggest issue.

Stuttgart struck after five minutes when Chadrac Akolo broke the deadlock off of an embarrassing blunder by Marc Bartra and the Dortmund defense.

Bartra attempted a routine back pass to goalkeeper Roman Burki during the early moments of the match, but his ball back proved to be way too strong and deflected off of Burki and into the path of Stuttgart forward Akolo (video below).

Dortmund atoned for the former Barcelona man’s mistake just prior to halftime when Maximilian Philipp equalized, but it took just six minutes into the second stanza for Josip Brekalo to restore the Stuttgart advantage.

Moyes: Chicharito could miss two weeks with hamstring strain

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David Moyes has given Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez assurances that he’ll have the opportunity to compete for a starting role with the Hammers, but the Mexican international will have to wait a bit for a chance.

[ MORE: North London Derby takes center stage Saturday morning ]

Hernandez, 29, is currently nursing a hamstring strain, leaving his status for this weekend against Watford in doubt.

“I think everyone knows he [Chicharito] has got a hamstring injury,” Moyes said during Friday’s press conference. “It could take a week, it could take two weeks.”

Moyes didn’t mince words recently when speaking about Chicharito and other players within the squad, essentially pointing out that no player will be awarded a starting role simply because of their stardom.

Hernandez has scored four goals in 13 matches this season for West Ham, who currently sits 18th in the Premier League. The Hammers have won just two matches to start the 2017/18 campaign and sit on nine points.

Alessandro Nesta steps down with NASL side Miami FC

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Miami FC quickly put itself on the U.S. soccer map in two short seasons, and much of the club’s success can be attributed to manager Alessandro Nesta.

[ MORE: Chris Coleman steps down with Wales, expected to take Sunderland job ]

The former Serie A defender has managed the club in its first two years of existence, but Nesta’s time in South Beach is coming to an end.

Nesta revealed on Friday that he won’t be returning to the NASL club in 2018, as he prepares to fnd a “new challenge” in his managerial career.

With NASL’s future as a league very much up in the air, Nesta could be seeking a more stable position entering 2018, especially given that his name has been thrown around with several MLS jobs over the last few months.