Progress Has Been Made-A Case for MLS

I read a Twitter exchange between Sports Illustrated writers Andy Glockner (@AndyGlockner) and Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops).  Davis wanted to know the best league to start following soccer with this son.  Glockner suggested the Barclay’s Premiere League in England and the Spanish Primera or German Bundesliga.  That is fine.  I follow all three of the leagues Glockner recommended.  I would point out, that there is a pretty good league here in the United States that deserves a little attention called Major League Soccer.  I also would suggest further that the true way to make a true fan is to attend games and the easiest way to do that for Davis and his son is to go to MLS matches.

This brings up two things.  One, I don’t want soccer to become the next hipster affectation.  I really don’t want to see a bunch of twenty-something indie bands walking around in Norwich jerseys because they are trying to be cool.  The other thing it brings up is an interview the FIFA president Sepp Blatter gave last week in which he was decrying the lack of progress for MLS in this country.

On one hand, he is an idiot.  That is not simply based on this topic.  It is based on his history of saying stupid and even offensive things.  He has not been to an MLS match since its first season so he has no standing to judge the progress of the on the field or in the stands product.  Believe me, I watched the first MLS match and have watched most of them since and the level of play and in game atmosphere have both grown at an exponential rate.

He also shows no understanding of the sports landscape in North America where only one major country has any long term sustained history of professional soccer, Mexico.  Is there more progress to be made, absolutely, but it is not a failure as Blatter characterizes it.

On the other hand, even a blind squirrel can find an acorn.  This short exchange between Glockner and Davis highlights the problem MLS has.  It is a growing league in a world populated by soccer leagues and in a country populated by at least three sports more popular on television.  Hockey theoretically is more popular, but since the NHL doesn’t currently exist I’m not counting it.  MLS Cup was played at the same time as the SEC Championship game at the beginning of December.  This was the LA Galaxy going for its second consecutive championship with David Beckham playing his last game in MLS with the most famous and best American player ever, Landon Donovan.  The game was crushed by the SEC Championship in the ratings.  It was not even close.  Yeah, there is a lot of work to do.

Blatter seems to think (if that is what you call it) that if only MLS would throw more money at players more would come to the US and the best American players would stay.  See that is a big problem, having your best players play in other countries.  Really good soccer playing countries like Holland, Brazil, Argentina, Belgium, etc. have so many problems fielding competitive teams with all their best players playing in England, Spain, Germany, Italy, and France.

The way MLS is doing this is the only way you can really grow in the within the situation the league finds itself.  It has concentrated more on infrastructure then splashy big names.  That isn’t as sexy as signing a bunch of ageing European former superstars looking for one more big paycheck and a semi-vacation.  That is building stadiums.  That is creating an academy system and a reserve system from scratch.

The NASL spent a lot of money on famous soccer players and made the New York Cosmos a cultural landmark.  The NASL lasted 16 years.  Yes, there were glory days in the early 1970s, but by the end the league was playing in front of half empty NFL stadiums with no television coverage.  Major League Soccer will enter its 17th season this spring and all but three teams play in stadiums built for soccer.

There is a lot of work still to be done, but this is no failure.  American soccer fans of a certain age have seen failure.  No World Cups for 40 years.  Yeah, we know failure and MLS is not it.

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