A little more than a week after Colorado, an original club, won its first MLS Cup and less than a week before the U.S. potentially wins a second World Cup bid, I am optimistic about the progress of American soccer overall. The progress made since the 1994 World Cup has been incredible, and the U.S is positioning itself to become a player in international soccer.
MLS has become a solid part of the American sports landscape. While not in the same category as the NFL, soccer is becoming more and more a part of the sports rotation for Americans. Next season, MLS will continue its expansion to add two great new markets in Portland and Vancouver. These with other recent additions like Seattle are spicing up a league with established franchises. And despite our complaints about a geographically stupid (and next year expanded) playoff system, the playoffs are producing compelling playoff matches and allow many teams to compete for a championship, a kind of parity other sports are also trying to achieve.
The quality of play is improving overall, due to the rise of young players (see below) and overseas talent. While the designated player rule has not yet helped a team win an MLS Cup, it has brought much needed attention to the league. It started with David Beckham, who’s signing gave international legitimacy to the league, and continues with Marquez and Henry. Don’t dismiss this development; although these players are no longer at their top form, they could easily choose to play in Qatar or the UAB, where they could make more money.
One of the areas in which MLS is really growing is its youth development. I know people got tired of hearing how Omar Cummings and Chris Wondolowski came up through the original reserve division, but the truth is the original reserve league did help with youth development, which is why its return was greeted with so much praise. Between the reserve league, youth academies, and Generation Adidas, youth is flowing through American soccer. The Juan Agudelo goal shows the youth development is churning out the young talent that will be critical to US success in the 2014 cycle.
Speaking of 2014, I am not a fan of the Bob Bradley rehiring and the way in which it was done. However, it still does not diminish the progress the American national team is making at all levels. The faults in the national team (no scoring from forwards, aging defense) look like they can be answered within the next few years (Altidore/Dempsey maturation, young up-and-coming players). The South Africa friendly was a good preview of what could be coming for the USMNT. While it was not like beating Spain (which the US did in 2009), the US found a way to get a result in front of a hostile crowd. And it was the youths that did it; the goal by Agudelo and play by Diskerud et. al. was impressive. Speaking of Diskerud, he is a young potential star that has dual-nationality that looks to have chosen the U.S., just like his teammate Teal Bunbury; after the Guiseppe Rossi loss the U.S. is working hard to keep stud players that could play elsewhere nationally.
Is everything perfect in American soccer? Far from it. MLS could fall victim to labor/financial problems and the national team could fail to develop under the current leadership. But I am cautiously optimistic about the direction of American soccer; we’ve come a long way from the days of the Continental Indoor Soccer League and I don’t expect us to be going back.