Major League Soccer kicks off its 19th season this weekend. This means that it has now survived longer than any other league in America’s spotty history with the beautiful game. For the most part, MLS has eschewed the expensive and explosive path of its forebears in favor of slow but steady growth. The league’s main challenges have been twofold: get Americans to like soccer, and get American soccer fans to like MLS. They struggled with that first part in the late ’90s, when they experimented with shootouts and stopping the clock and a few other things that made the rest of the world laugh. Winning American fans to the world’s game was an arduous, slow process.
But Fox Soccer Channel didn’t exist in 1996. In the mid 2000s, those lucky enough to have it were able to watch soccer from all over the world, most notably the English Premier League. And so for part of the growing population of soccer fans in the U.S., MLS became an afterthought. These people would much rather watch Manchester United than DC United. They are the type to go to the bar at bizarre hours and ignore the soccer being played in the same country. I’ve been one of them.
For the most part, it’s been hard to blame them. The level of play in Spain and England is unquestionably better than MLS. But there is something MLS has that is not and cannot be found in Europe: parity. In Spain, Real Madrid and Barcelona have won each of the last 9 titles, and 25 of the last 29. The English Premier League is far more competitive and still Manchester United has won 13 of the last 21. European soccer is simple: the rich teams win; everyone else is trying to enjoy the ride.
MLS is unorthodox in comparison to other soccer leagues, but its structure will look familiar to American fans. It has two conferences rather than a single division, and scheduling is uneven. Playoffs are used to determine a champion, where European leagues simply award the trophy to the team with the best record. Most significantly, MLS has a salary cap of around $3 million (for reference, the most frugal Premier League teams spend over $50 million on salaries), though the league now allows clubs three exceptions for high priced stars like David Beckham or Thierry Henry. As a result of all this, the first 18 MLS Cups have been won by nine different clubs, though none of them are the Revolution. Last year, Sporting Kansas City won the MLS Cup despite being outspent by more than half the league.
But even as the league maintains its competitive balance, the quality of play has been steadily improving. It is not just for old players anymore. Clint Dempsey left England in his prime to return to MLS last summer. Just last month, Michael Bradley, a 26-year-old American midfielder, left one of Italy’s best teams to play for Toronto. When the U.S. national team goes to Brazil for this summer’s World Cup, it’s likely that five of its regular starters will be playing in MLS. At the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, only four MLS players even made appearances.
Consider MLS fandom as an investment. It is not one of the world’s best soccer leagues, nor can it yet claim a spot as one of America’s most prominent sports. It will be a decade at least before an argument about either of these things can begin to be made. But you have an opportunity to support a local product, with some of the best American talent, through growing stages and growing pains. Because it will grow, and you’re going to want to say you were there before it was big.
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