Soccer pessimist Frank Deford recently submitted a National Public Radio broadcast entitled “Americans Don’t Care About Major League Soccer,” detailing why popularizing soccer in the United States is a futile effort. Deford argued for American exceptionalism when it comes to soccer—there is an emphasis on major international leagues, not MLS. “The fantasy for our soccer fans is that Major League Soccer will somehow become major league,” Deford said. Deford is right that the MLS is less popular than European leagues. He has not, however, witnessed the slow and steady growth of the MLS in the league’s two-decade existence.
The MLS has grown in participation since its inception in 1993, coming a long way from the original 10 teams and “Americanized” rules. There are currently 20 teams in the league with four more expansion teams lined up to join. In addition, attendance has increased. The average attendance at an MLS game in 2000 was around 13,700 people—the lowest attendance of any year. Attendance increased dramatically to around 19,100 people per game in 2014. While that is small in comparison to the attendance numbers of the other four major professional sports leagues, the 39 percent increase is encouraging.
The MLS is also getting better players in the league. Ever since English superstar David Beckham joined the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007, the MLS has been bringing in more name brand foreign exports to bolster league popularity. Irish striker Robbie Keane, former FIFA World Player of the Year Kaká, World Cup winner David Villa and English midfielder Frank Lampard are just some examples. One can make the argument that the MLS is the “retirement home” of famous soccer players.
This, however, isn’t always the case. The 28-year-old Italian national team midfielder Sebastian Giovinco and 24-year-old Norway-born American midfielder Mix Diskerud are two exciting young names that can increase the popularity of the league. The MLS is also recruiting homegrown talent that can bring excitement to the league. Young stars like midfielder Luis Gil, midfielder Wil Trapp and forward Gyasi Zardes are exciting young prospects from the U.S. who have the potential to play in Europe.
The MLS has put the world on notice both because of its players and its success in international competitions. The Montreal Impact are the first MLS team to make it to the CONCACAF Champions League final since Real Salt Lake did in 2011. If they win this tournament, they will attend the FIFA Club World Cup where they will face off against the exact European competitors that Deford said are taking American audiences away. It would be a great opportunity to give the world a glimpse of how good the league has become.
During spring break, I had the opportunity to go to New York City FC’s first ever soccer match at Yankee Stadium. Due to increased demand for tickets, the stadium opened its 300-level seating. Upon walking to my seat, I saw a packed crowd of over 43,500 fans. The atmosphere was electric and peaked when NYCFC forward Villa scored the first ever goal for the club on their home field.
The MLS isn’t perfect. Still, the passion-filled environment and potential for growth is exciting. That is embodied in a tweet from former U.S. national team defender Alexi Lalas: “Turning ‘fantasy’ into reality is what American exceptionalism does.”