The World Cup is over and yes, it’s depressing. While no league in the world can truly match the amazing month-long festival of soccer that is the World Cup, America has an immediate outlet where fans can get their soccer fix: Major League Soccer. Whether you’re a brand new soccer enthusiast sucked in by the vortex of World Cup fun, or a veteran fan dealing with post-World Cup letdown, it is the perfect time for fans of soccer in America to try supporting MLS.
If you’re rolling your eyes after reading that paragraph, this article is particularly for you. I understand your reaction. I reacted similarly for a long time until I decided to give MLS a try a few years ago. MLS has to wage an ongoing battle against its stigma as an inferior league, but the tide is turning and MLS is increasingly well respected and even scouted for talent by larger clubs and leagues. When Stoke City was on their preseason tour of the U.S. last summer, manager Mark Hughes said,
“There’s definite improvement in the standards and I think everybody accepts that. MLS is a well-regarded league by everybody in Europe, I think you will see more and more teams coming over [to the U.S. for preseason tours] because we now know that the challenge and the competition here is good and we get the right level of opposition to test us. The quality of the opposition is correct and we can benefit from it.”
If you’ve never paid attention to MLS or haven’t checked in on the league in several years, you’ll be surprised. The current MLS is not the league you remember. The league’s average per game attendance now tops the NBA and NHL, with Seattle continually attracts the best crowds in the league (64,207 attended last night’s Sounders/Timbers match in Seattle). The league’s stadiums are mostly state-of-the-art, intimate, fantastic soccer-viewing venues (and most of them are less than ten-years-old). Fifteen of the nineteen MLS clubs now play in their own soccer-specific stadium, with new stadiums currently under construction or planned for D.C. United, San Jose, and Orlando. The league continues expanding with new teams coming soon to New York City, Orlando, Miami, and Atlanta. In May, the league signed a new eight-year, $720 million TV deal with ESPN, FOX, and Univision. These are boom times for MLS.
During this World Cup, I heard the same hype/conversations during every World Cup about how Americans are flocking to soccer en masse and how much the sport is growing in the U.S. Then we move on and forget about it (in the media at least) for the next four years. The success of MLS, however, is tangible evidence that American soccer growth is authentic. On July 4th weekend against Chicago Fire, Sporting Kansas City had its 45th straight sellout – no one could have predicted anything like that for a franchise like Kansas City during World Cup 2010.
Cynics protest that attendance figures are nice and all, but MLS’ on-field product is still vastly inferior. While soccer aesthetics are less quantifiable than tickets sold, the soccer quality of MLS is much better than it used to be. The league is now bearing the fruit of its youth development mandate and the post-Beckham Designated Player effect. MLS certainly wants to mature into a destination league for players in their prime rather than at the end of their careers (i.e. Thierry Henry), but attracting players like Kaka (Orlando City) and David Villa (New York City FC) are important steps in that direction.