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Encouraging signs for the development of American soccer

in Columns/Sports by

American soccer is one of the more obscure topics in the world of sports. When one does hear about American soccer, it is often in the context of how bad it is relative to other mainstream sports in the U.S. and to soccer internationally. However, Major League Soccer, the highest level of professional soccer in the U.S., has developed the brand of American soccer substantially over the last few years. After all its hard work, the MLS is finally having some notable success and has exciting prospects in its future. The arduous process that led to this point is certainly worth remembering and recognizing.

The MLS’s founding was part of a compromise between U.S. Soccer, the representative body of American soccer, and FIFA, the governing body of international soccer. In exchange for hosting the 1994 World Cup, the U.S. agreed to start a top division soccer league.  The first MLS season was in 1996, in a time when the status of American soccer seemed promising; the 1994 World Cup had been staged rather impressively by the United States, with both average game attendance and total attendance records established that still have not been broken today. This indicated that plenty of Americans were very much interested in soccer and that the MLS had a solid fan base. The success of its predecessor, the North American Soccer League, in the ’70s before its financial collapse in the late ’80s was also encouraging.

While there was some initial excitement when the league began, attendance and interest from sports fans began to decline rapidly after the first season. Most realized that the quality of the players was rather low, as evidenced by the 1998 World Cup in which the American team, consisting of mostly MLS players, came in last place. Furthermore, the MLS also had trouble establishing legitimacy during its early years. Most of its teams played in football stadiums, creating the mentality that soccer was secondary to other mainstream American sports. MLS tried to resolve this in a way that ultimately proved counterproductive; it tried to change the rules in order to make soccer more like other mainstream sports, notably with shootouts for every tied game and countdown clocks. These adjustments alienated fans of traditional soccer, who are the majority of soccer fans. There were no big names to fuel the league like the the great Pele did for the NASL. The list of woes goes on, but the end result was that the league lost hundreds of millions of dollars and seemed to be on the verge of collapse.

How was the MLS salvaged? For one thing, it stopped trying to change the rules of soccer (a rather silly idea in hindsight, considering how popular the 1994 World Cup, a display of traditional soccer, had been in the U.S.). It started making soccer-specific stadiums to convince potential fans that it was willing to do what it took to legitimize American professional soccer. Smart financial maneuvers along with these actions allowed the MLS kept itself afloat.

The key change for the MLS was the rise in the quality of its players in the latter half of the 2000s. At first, it seemed like the opposite was happening as American-grown players like Tim Howard left for European leagues. With some more of that financial maneuvering, however, the MLS was able to bring in David Beckham in 2007, a move which most consider to be the turning point for the MLS and U.S domestic soccer. More big-name European stars past their prime were brought in, enhancing the quality of the game with their experience and putting the spotlight on the MLS with their reputations. This allowed the MLS to fully stabilize financially and even generate profit. Now, the MLS has been expanding out to new markets at a prolific rate, with 21 teams playing in the 2015 season.

Is this success? Some see this as a slightly enhanced version of mediocrity. This argument has plenty of merit if one compares the MLS to professional soccer leagues worldwide. Even now, English Premier League matches have almost twice as many viewers per broadcast in the U.S. than MLS matches, 414,000 compared to 220,000. The influx of aged international stars like Beckham, Thierry Henry, and Tim Cahill, has been the subject of many jokes; the trend is often depicted as the MLS recycling players who have been discarded by European leagues. Truthfully speaking, many of these players have extended their careers by coming to the U.S. and playing in the MLS. The few stars that have been homegrown have often gone abroad to play at a higher level of competition, such as Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore. The quality of MLS soccer is far from that of most European leagues; as long as that is true, many American-born talents will continue to go abroad to make the U.S. competitive in the World Cup.

This all indicates that the MLS still has plenty of work to do. At minimum, it has had some financial success, an accomplishment not to be taken for granted, as it allows the expansion of the American soccer brand and other projects. The U.S. had modest results in the most recent World Cup with contributions from plenty of MLS players. Indeed, some of the most talented players abroad have been returning in light of the MLS’s resurgence, including Dempsey and Altidore. While it is still not a major American sports league quite yet, the MLS has notably been gaining popularity among teenagers, even surpassing baseball in some studies. Future generations will thus be key in how prominent the MLS and American soccer as a whole can become.

The MLS has finally established a fan base and following that it can build on. I will be the first to admit that I can count the number of MLS games I watch per year on one hand. But I’ve been interested enough to find the recent history of the MLS noteworthy, as have many fans of soccer here in the U.S. I’ve also been convinced enough of its progress to be dismayed by news of a potential strike by MLS players; once upon a time, something like that wouldn’t have been newsworthy, and might even have been encouraged by some. Although I will never be a rabid fan of the MLS, my hope is that it will sustain its success in the long-term for the sake of strengthening the foundations of soccer in the United States.

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