Why do soccer teams have weird names like “DC United” or “Sporting KC” while just about every other sports has names like the Chicago Cubs or the Houston Texans? And why do some American soccer teams have “normal” names like the Vancouver Whitecaps and others have “weird” names like “FC Dallas.”
There’s a broad answer that applies to soccer teams [almost] everywhere, and then there’s a specific answer that has to do with the American game.
The Club Origins Of Professional Sports
Almost all professional sports, as we know them, emerged from the tradition of clubs playing against each other in the sport of choice.
Imagine that it’s 1870, before the days of radio, TV, the internet, and what have you. A gent with time on his hands, needing something to do, would oft head to a club to hang out with other gents, discuss the matters of the day, smoke cigars, knock back a few brandies, and so on. Some clubs would compete against each other in organized sports – mostly association football (or, soccer) over in England, mostly the game that would become baseball in the United States.
As it was not uncommon for crowds to gather to watch such club competitions (what else was there to do?), it soon became apparent that there was money to be made in charging people to watch those games. And so it was that in 1876, in the U.S., the Cincinnati Ball Club became the first team to admit that they were being paid to play baseball, and professional baseball was born. Meanwhile, over in England, Notts County became the first professional football/soccer club.
Terms Of Endearment
Officially, on both sides of The Pond, teams were just referred to by the name of the club from which they originated. The Cincinnati Ball Club, the Arsenal Football Club (later shortened to Arsenal FC), and so on.
It wasn’t long before fans started giving nicknames to their favorite clubs, or to the players therein. The Cincinnati baseball team, for example, got the nickname “the Red Legs” because the stockings they wore were, well, red. The Pittsburgh baseball team got the nickname “Pirates” because a newspaper columnist accused them of stealing another player from another club. The Chicago Cubs because their team at the time was so young. And so on.
Similarly, fans in the U.K. also gave their teams nicknames. Arsenal Football Club, for example, became affectionately known as the “Gunners” because they played near a, well, an arsenal.
But here’s the thing: in the U.S., those nicknames would eventually become the more-or-less official names of the teams: the Chicago Cubs, the St. Louis Browns, and so on and so forth – a tradition that spread to other sports as well. But in the U.K., those nicknames remained merely as terms of endearment among the fans. The clubs, and the media reporting on them, continued to use club names – a tradition that spread across the rest of Europe.
Enter Major League Soccer (MLS)
When Major League Soccer first became a league in the early 1990’s, most teams held to the American tradition of naming the team for a “nickname.” The Kansas City team was the Wizards, the Chicago team was the Fire (Chicago? Fire? get it?). And so on. But around 2010, MLS started re-branding itself to be more in line with the European model. The Kansas City Wizards became Sporting KC, for example.
Some teams, however, retained their original names. And as MLS has expanded, some teams have come into the league with more European-style names, while others have come in with more American-style names. MLS doesn’t have an official policy on the matter, leaving it up to the investors who bring in new teams.
As for the teams with European-style names, some of them still have unofficial/official nicknames. The Orlando City Soccer Club, for example, is unofficially the Lions, for reasons that elude this writer. And indeed, their mascot is Kingston, a dreadlocks-wearing lion.
I, for one, don’t get it, but whatever works for the Orlando team and its fans.