I remember when Major League Soccer was joke in the U.S. When the league started, people were saying it would never last, that it could never hope to reach the heights of the old North American Soccer League, that featured the likes of Pele’ and sold out football stadiums. But over the past few years MLS has proved it’s not only here to stay, but maybe in the forseeable future could possibly challenge the NBA and Major League Baseball for the title of second most popular sports league in America.
I became a soccer fan as a child, and although I gravitated more to “American” football, soccer was still was a sport I followed. I grew up a fan of the University of Virginia’s great soccer teams of the early 90′s when Bruce Arena was the coach there, and he built a dynasty with five national championships. Arena also produced such great players and former U.S. national team members like Claudio Reyna, Tony Meola, Jeff Agoos, and John Harkes. Cheering for these teams sparked my love for soccer, and spurred my support of the National Team and now MLS.
I’m glad to see that Bruce Arena is still having success in MLS with the Los Angeles Galaxy, and in turn MLS is having success as well. Part of the reason is due to an influx of credible talent not only from other countries, but also from America as well. The increase in talent has helped improve the product on the field, and has helped attract more fans. Superstars like David Beckham and Thierry Henry have helped raise the profile of MLS along with American, Landon Donovan, who shot to stardom with his world cup performances.
But there has always been an undercurrent of rabid soccer fans in the United States, and the National Team has a great following. There have been some minor league soccer teams that have built tremendous followings as well, but there was never a consistently good enough product available to lure fans and keep them on a national level. But now there is. Not only in the United States but Canada as well.
Instead of trying to sell out 70,000 seat stadiums, teams and cities are building 20,000 seat soccer specific stadiums, and the new stadiums help attract fans as well. And several eyebrows were raised when last year it was announced that MLS averaged more fans per game than the NBA did. Granted, MLS teams don’t play as many games, but it’s a tremendous achievement none the less.
But even with that great accomplishment, MLS is still behind the NBA and MLB in popularity. Can MLS ever hope to leapfrog those leagues into the number two spot behind the mighty NFL? I guess only time will tell. But if things continue the way they’ve gone the past few years for MLS, who knows? Maybe twenty years from now this will be even more of “football” nation, with soccer lining up behind the other football as the most popular in America.
- Major League Soccer, 2012 Week 5: What We Learned (sbnation.com)