In March, Alexi Lalas loudly proclaimed that to be a true soccer fan in the United States, you must watch and support Major League Soccer. “Think globally act locally,” Lalas proclaimed.
While the sentiment is nice, the promotion of Major League Soccer by many pundits in the United States tend to forget that the majority of professional teams in the United States are not in MLS, the nation’s top flight league, but in lower divisions that receive little or no promotion from the likes of Lalas. It is these teams, many of which are in larger metropolitan areas than most MLS teams, that have the impact of creating a supporters culture. Unfortunately, many like Lalas ignore the organic growth of the game at the grassroots level outside MLS and serve merely as cheerleaders for the nation’s top flight.
Take for example the Atlanta Silverbacks who reside in one of America’s largest media markets. Atlanta just won the NASL spring season title yet we have seen very little acknowledgement or discussion of this achievement in the US soccer press. The story that features a Cinderella worst-to-first was partially authored by US Soccer legend Eric Wynalda could be used to stimulate interest in the domestic game in one of the country’s leading cities. Instead Lalas and his cohorts have avoided any discussion of the topic preferring instead to focus on the MLS All-Stars and a newly created “retention” fund that will at least ostensibly prevent top American talent from fleeing the league.
By ignoring those fans in large markets that watch lower division soccer, the bulk of the American soccer press typified by Lalas are driving fans that are connecting with the game locally to further their passion for the sport by watching matches from abroad. MLS could build the relationship with supporters in markets outside of the 15 domestic cities where teams reside by actively engaging fans and supporters groups in these places in discussions about the sport rather than merely “MLS expansion.” Instead as I have personally observed, MLS holds very little attraction for these fans who spend time, effort and money promoting the game locally. Oftentimes these fans — rather than watching MLS — gravitate to pubs to watch the Premier League before organizing and tailgating before local NASL or USL PRO matches. Simply put, MLS has not built the proper relevance for these fans.
Let’s take the state of Florida for example where no MLS team has resided since 2001. The state currently has four professional teams in the second and third divisions, all drawing varying degrees of support. The state is also become a hotbed for amateur teams in the fourth division PDL and NPSL. These fans in the nation’s soon to be third most populated state have zero links to Major League Soccer. The closest top flight professional team to a large percentage of the state’s population is actually Atlante of Liga MX, not any domestic based top flight team.
Again, if those who promote and cheerlead for MLS really want to make the domestic game grow to where those who have connected with the game locally are not seeking out Premier League matches on TV, they need to work to cover the domestic game in the lower tiers, promoting it and giving it relevance alongside MLS rather than trying to further marginalize it.
Supporting domestic soccer isn’t as simple as saying “watch MLS” as some like Lalas seem to believe. It is in fact much deeper than that. Certainly watching and promoting MLS is one aspect of it, but for many outside MLS markets there exists little motivation to watch the league.