Two Uniteds are a party. Are three a crowd? Poor Minnesota. First New LA steals their loon wing, and now MLS is trying to take apart their name. In today’s class of Micromanagement 101, Northern Pitch is reporting that MLS has allegedly requested Minnesota United FC to change their official name and drop "United." Northern Pitch was also kind enough to name-drop Atlanta United FC in their justification for the team’s name as is, and (quite rightly) argued that there is absolutely nothing wrong with Minnesota using the "United" moniker alongside Atlanta and DC.
While there are plenty of valid points in NP’s article, it seems a bit shortsighted to mark this out as an attack on Minnesota, and taking a look at Atlanta’s branding process reveals a bigger issue for MLS clubs that remains true despite independent clubs gaining more notoriety in recent seasons: MLS, the league as a holistic entity, is the star when it comes to American soccer, not its players or its clubs.
When AUFC rolled out their crest (which is awesome, thanks) and club name, responses to the name were mixed to negative, to put it nicely. "Atlanta United Football Club" is pretty wordy, not to mention it seems like a fairly arbitrary reference to British football. It’s certainly not as bad as "Rayo OKC," but the reasoning behind the "United" was shallow. MLS fans recognized this, and let MLS hear about it on Twitter, in MLS comment threads, and elsewhere. To put it simply: MLS is not (allegedly) asking Minnesota to change its name because it doesn’t want to seem like European clubs, and it’s not concerned that people will confuse Minnesota with DC or Atlanta. MLS saw the reaction to Atlanta’s name after officially branding and creating the team, and decided it would be better for the league as a whole if that sort of reaction didn’t happen again. Of course that’s a pretty fragile reaction to some Twitter users, but doesn’t that seem so much like MLS? This is the league that let a Designated Player’s destination be chosen by blind draw at one point. Tellingly, after that debacle went down, MLS changed the rules again.
This isn’t a "sky is falling; MLS is the devil" argument. There are plenty of legitimate reasons that MLS micromanages the way it does, the specter of MLS 1.0 and the NASL chiefly among them. The higher ups know they are selling a product that is not in ridiculously high demand where they are, and so they make small strides while attempting to stay financially sound in case a slip-up happens. However, the days of MLS making rules up on the fly and being the star of the show are numbered. If that wasn’t already clear enough by the Players Union finally achieving some form of free agency in the last Collective Bargaining Agreement, it should seem clear in the manner that vocal fanbases react to the league trying to control the identities of its clubs and how they function within the league. MLS is going to have to strike the right balance between club autonomy and keeping the league’s best interests in heart going forward; the fans and clubs are proving less and less willing to toe the party line.