As the New Year has come to the fans and writers of US Soccer, we have to start discussing the wonderful world of FIFA President Sepp Blatter. He has done it again, as the Gaffer detailed in his recent posting.
The question of the popularity of soccer in this country has been brought up a lot over the eighteen years of Major League Soccer’s existence. When it comes to the popularity of the world’s favorite game, questions always land here in the United States. We know that the top sports leagues in this country from a popularity standpoint have been the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, NCAA Football and Major League Baseball. There has been plenty of time for American Soccer to grow, but someone wants it to be top sport of our land – and it sounds like he wants it yesterday. That person is Sepp.
In an Al-Jazeera interview embedded in the above-linked article, Blatter was published saying the following: “It is a question of time, I thought — we had the World Cup in 1994, but it is now 18 years in so it should have been done now. But they are still struggling.”
There has been tremendous growth from the people who support the game and in Major League Soccer. We are only four stadiums shy of having all nineteen sides playing in their own facilities (in 2014, that will drop to three with the opening of the new San Jose park).
We should also point out that American players who got their start in Major League Soccer are also being respected abroad like never before. We know goalkeepers like Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller, and Tim Howard have been coveted by European clubs, but we’re starting to see more attacking players gain credibility overseas. Clint Dempsey features at Tottenham, a team that finished in the EPL’s Top 4 last season. Jozy Altidore is in the top 5 of goalscorers at Dutch club AZ Alkmaar. And Michael Bradley has moved to A.S. Roma, one of the top sides in Italy’s Serie A, after an impressive stint at Chievo last season.
But all of that doesn’t register with the “great” President from the House of Football. He is trying to force this “growth” down our throats. The popularity of football in the USA hasn’t met his lofty goals. Once again, he needs a bit of an education to understand certain things.
At the time there were two professional leagues before MLS came around: the United Soccer Leagues (formerly known as the U.S.I.S.L.) and the A-League. When those two sides merged to become the USL in 1996 and officially managed the lower levels as MLS is now the top tier in US Soccer.
Then a reshuffling occurred at the lower levels in 2011, as the North American Soccer League (NASL) was reborn as a USSF-sanctioned D2 league. USL continued to operate at the D3 level with USL-Pro, and also oversaw the amateur sides of the Premier Developmental League (PDL).
That has strengthened MLS. While there is no promotion and relegation, there has been steady expansion after a dark period in the early 2000’s when the contraction of Miami and Tampa Bay occurred. The Pacific Northwest made solid contributions with the Sounders in 2009 and Timbers in 2011. With teams coming over from Canada true expansion sides (Toronto F.C) or clubs that have been in the lower leagues making the leap via financial promotion (Vancouver & Montreal), the league is at a solid 19 teams and still looking to add. This should show Blatter that the Pyramid in the US is getting better.
But it really bothers you when Blatter makes a quote like the one above without fact or without actually making a trip to the US outside of a CONCACAF Gold Cup Final. Blatter wanted to see soccer dominate the American sports landscape by this point. While he’s welcome to have that desire, it’s nearly an impossible task in a mere 18 years since the ’94 World Cup – especially given the crowded landscape.
Are we struggling here in MLS? Maybe there are times. It’s not a positive thing when a stadium is half full. That shouldn’t mean the top tier has failed, , especially when attendance can be an issue for many teams in other American sports. It also doesn’t mean that MLS is not a strong professional league. We can always question some of the directions they have taken, but MLS has succeeded.
The country has accepted the world’s favorite game, but instead of pointing the finger at MLS and US Soccer, most of the blame should fall to the mainstream sports media. Those are the people who have truly failed the sport. They refuse to give credence to the sport, outside of the once-every-four-years World Cup. Even when the U.S. has qualified for several tournaments in a row, the big networks seem to lack enthusiasm towards the cause.
Not only that, it’s the stodgy editors of certain newspapers or stuck-in-the-mud producers of sports talk radio in many markets that give soccer the silent treatment. And that’s at best; if they do bring it up, it is often to lampoon it with all the typical stereotypes we’ve heard for many years.
We have spoken, and we know that our voices are being heard. Slowly but surely this game will be on the lips and fingertips of the mainstream sports media and there will be nothing they can do to stop it. It’s only a matter of time.