I’m a big fan of the MLS, and soccer in general. But I’m writing about a question that I hope the answer is a resounding “YES!” but I’m hearing a “NO!” inside. Will the MLS (Major League Soccer) ever be a big time soccer league? Meaning, will it get recognition from worldwide soccer (football, soccer, whatever you wish to call it) fans, not just American soccer fans? Will it ever get rid of the reputation that it’s an old player’s league, a place for aging soccer stars, like Thierry Henry and David Beckham to gain some fame in the USA and then retire? Or will young stars prove to us that they take the MLS seriously? Let’s take a look at some of the factors.
MLS commissioner Don Garber has started to do a better job of marketing the league, but I don’t think it’s enough. Sorry, but marketing guys like Beckham and Henry isn’t going to cut it. Rivalries are starting to take place, which is why the new MLS club Portland Timbers is such a great move. The Timbers have a long history when they were a part of the USL (United Soccer League). To make things even better, their longtime rival, the Seattle Sounders, are also a MLS club, one of the most successful ones, as their attendance at CenturyLink Field has shattered records. That’s great for the MLS, but the problem is, most of the other clubs aren’t getting that much support.
Don Garber and his colleagues have got to find a way to promote their league with a young player or a number of young players who are the stars of the future. This is a huge problem, as many of the stars of the MLS, such as Landon Donovan and Henry and Beckham will likely be retired within the next 5 years. What the MLS and soccer fans need is a rising star. But first, Don Garber has to change the mentality and the perception of Major League Soccer- or else the league will have no chance to be taken seriously by global soccer fans.
In wake of the 2011 Women’s World Cup, I have once again noticed the unbelievable bandwagon effect that Americans cannot get rid of when their country does well. The American women were downright amazing during the World Cup, and yet, they come through and don’t fold under the pressure. They start winning, and soon enough, they’re headline news on ESPN.com, they’re garnering record amounts of tweets, and almost every American has a decent idea of what is going on. They beat Marta and Brazil in the quarterfinals, defeat France in the semis, and they’re heavy favorites against Japan in possibly the best case scenario, as Japan is tired, and the USA don’t have to play tournament favorite and hosts Germany, as Japan surprisingly upset them. Everyone turns on their TV or radio, finding any possible way to follow the match Sunday afternoon. And then what happens? The USA loses. May I mention they barely lose, in penalty kicks, in one of the greatest sporting events in recent memory, by far the greatest Women’s World Cup game ever. I can’t believe that the same people that were all over the US Women’s team, heaping them with praise while they were winning, are now calling them “chokers”. That is absolutely ridiculous. (On a side note, I think the USWNT played brilliantly and have nothing bad to take away from the tournament, just Japan couldn’t have played better throughout and mentally defeated the USA in penalties.) Now, this is the problem with American sports fans and soccer. It’s a love-hate relationship. Sometimes, soccer looks like it can be a huge sport in the USA for a long time to come. The next, it’s virtually forgotten about. Now, I don’t mean to bash American soccer fans, because believe me, there are a fair share of great fans from the USA, ones that don’t waver back and forth between their realization of the great game of soccer, and the “American bandwagon mentality”, when they love soccer one second, hate it the next. This is the thing about a bandwagon. They’re great, fantastic when they’re going on, when the country/team is winning, everything is great, then Boom! They lose. Then those same people who praise the team throughout their victorious stretch change their opinions completely and start to make ridiculous claims. As a big fan of soccer, one of those true soccer fans, I love when those bandwagons are happening, but hate when it ends. I hope that most bandwagon fans end up becoming real fans for life, but usually, that just doesn’t happen. Usually they go back to their pre-bandwagon mentalities and stop watching soccer, and focus on other sports and blame the USMNT and the USWNT, when in reality, we’re all to blame. Soccer has become a sport that many kids play when they’re young, but by 5th grade, nearly every American kid has quit soccer. This has to change, because that’s the future of American soccer.
Going back to the MLS, us fans have to commit to watching soccer and supporting teams all the time, no matter, win or lose. Hey, the Cubs haven’t won in 100+ years, and they still have one of the greatest fan bases in baseball. Why can’t FC Dallas have a great fan base despite never winning the MLS Cup? The reason is because in Dallas, and in many other places too, soccer was never a top sport, and unless we change it now, never will be. Remember, MLS was only started as part of the USA’s bid for the 1994 FIFA World Cup, which they eventually got. MLS was a way of saying, “Hey, world, we are now committed to soccer and to eventually showcase soccer to the world.” The way that MLS can create a more soccer friendly environment in places like Dallas is to have “Family Packs”, or ticket packages that focus around families, and to bring them together by going to a soccer match for a little amount of money, then eventually build up a fan base. That doesn’t apply to soccer mad cities such as Seattle and Portland.
3. Homegrown talent
The sad thing about the current style of promoting MLS, besides the fact that almost all of the recognizable names of players worldwide are older than 30, but the fact that almost all of those names are from somewhere other than the United States of America, with the notable exception of Landon Donovan. Henry is from France, Beckham is from England. Juan Pablo Angel is from Columbia, and…well, you get the point. I do like the “Designated Player Rule” or as it’s informally known as, “The Beckham Rule”. I like that it gives MLS clubs freedom to sign a well known player or two without worrying about salary cap. What the USA needs, and MLS needs, is more homegrown players. And that all goes back to today’s generation, and to spread soccer around, so that eventually, soccer will be part of the “Big 5”. But for now, the “Big 5”, is the “Big 4” of American sports, baseball, football, basketball, and hockey.
When raising competition, you have to raise the stage, both literally and figuratively. These days, more and more MLS clubs are building soccer-specific stadiums, such as Red Bull Arena, and Livestrong Park. It’s fantastic that soccer-specific stadiums are coming up, but I do think that some fan bases and cities have to earn the stadium. I know that if you build a new stadium, more spectators will come, largely because of the fact that these stadiums are very nice and have lots of features for fans. The Chicago Fire and Columbus Crew have earned their beautiful stadiums, but what did Toronto FC fans or FC Dallas fans do to earn theirs? Not to pick on those specific clubs, but having 11 soccer specific stadiums hosting 12 MLS teams (LA Galaxy and Chivas USA share Home Depot Center) in only MLS’ 15th season is a bit ridiculous to me, considering the fact that only a handful of clubs sell out every game at home and have a solid fan base. Then again, maybe Don Garber and MLS is banking on the fact that more fans will come to the new stadiums. Yes, it’s always ugly to watch soccer players play on the same field as MLB or NFL teams, but you have to earn your stadium, don’t you think?
4. Raise the competition, show MLS to the world
One of the greatest ideas to help MLS is the World Football Challenge (WFC) that is currently going on. This features well known clubs such as Manchester United, Manchester City, Italian Club Palermo, Mexican side Club Ámerica, and more playing against MLS clubs. There are three reasons why this event is fantastic for MLS.
I can bet that before Manchester City played expansion team Vancouver Whitecaps FC, lots of Man City fans had no idea there was a Vancouver franchise in MLS. The same can be said about a lot of other fans of English and Italian clubs about MLS. This expands the knowledge of MLS teams and players to international soccer fans that might not know much (if anything) about MLS, and soccer in the USA for that matter. Thus far, in the 2011 World Football Challenge, MLS squads have not yet beaten an international club, losing all 3 matches thus far, but perhaps they can win a few and surprise top-tier clubs, as it usually happens every year at least once or twice.
What greater feeling in the world is there for a young footballer than to play against his favorite club and perhaps his favorite player? This dream comes true, and, young players in the MLS can improve their games by playing alongside the greatest players in the world. Goalkeepers in the MLS can improve their skills against Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Ryan Giggs. MLS players will be pushed to the limit in ways that league-wide matches cannot make them. MLS players can possibly set up their future in foreign countries such as England playing for top-tier English clubs, explained further in the next paragraph.
3. Future Relationships between MLS and worldwide clubs
Young players in the MLS are going to get better, and who knows, sometime down the road perhaps they’ll get a chance to play for the same team that they dream about playing on, such as Manchester United or Real Madrid. Playing against those clubs now as a young and up-and-coming player might set the tone for the rest of their career. Also, from a team perspective, maybe the World Football Challenge can start a relationship/rivalry, where maybe an MLS team and another club play a friendly or two each year, and MLS clubs rent a player to, say, Manchester United. It’s perfect. At least in my opinion.
5. Wrap up/Conclusion
To answer the question of the title, Yes, but not right now. The MLS is still a developing league, even though it’s been around for 15 years. Soccer in America has a love-hate relationship as I explained earlier. That mentality likely won’t change for a number of years. But if MLS can get a solid fan base, from a mix of constant American fans and international fans, or expats, then the MLS can be very successful. I think it’s been successful already. Give the MLS 5 years, and I’m pretty sure it will be more popular than it is now. I think that somewhere down the road, making the “Big 4” of sports the “Big 5”, including MLS, is possible, and they should aim for that. Until then, continue to watch MLS, wherever you can, and enjoy.