MLS Comes of Age
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The MLS plays a key role in soccer's advancement in the USA. After a summer of thrilling World Cup soccer, followed by Major League Soccer hosting a very intriguing "Summer of Soccer" against some of the best sides in the world, the United States has finally accepted futbol as a major sport. For the first time perhaps in my whole life, I watched a soccer game in its entirety last night when I didn't have a serious dog in the fight (my club team, my high school, Team USA or Clemson). Yes, I sat down and watched the MLS expansion team the Philadelphia Union take on the famous Manchester United, and I was entertained the full 90 minutes. Now that America has shown it can consistently compete on a world level, the sport is set to take off across the States. If you have "heard this before," or have shunned the sport up until now, I cannot blame you completely. However, now might be a good time for you to open your mind to this game.
In 1994, I was told that soccer had arrived in the US. To some degree it had (hosting World Cup), and to some degree it hadn't (failed leagues such as the NASL). Many, including myself, were on the fence as to play soccer or baseball - the two big spring sports being offered at my high school at the time. I would say it was about 50/50 amongst my peers as to who chose which. Fast forward to 2010 and I don't think baseball is going anywhere, but I think soccer is here to stay in a big way. I think the sport is finally starting to come to be what many hoped it would evolve into almost 20 years ago. The reasons are many, but my hat has to go off to the MLS. The league (founded 1993, first games 1996) took advantage of the youth soccer movement of the mid-1990's by not only staying afloat, but by making serious strides towards being one of the top leagues on the globe.
As I type this, the MLS is really starting to catch on, and I attribute that a lot to its smart planning on stadium size. The league didn't try to rent out monster stadiums at prices they couldn't afford or at capacity's they couldn't fill. The league knew that 10,000-15,000 people a night would be all they could get at first - even in big markets with a limited amount of games. They also knew mostly empty stadiums would create a bad feeling, and one game might be all people came to. They had to start their product from scratch, and so they did.
The stadiums were custom built and mostly owned by the franchises. These were called "soccer specific stadiums" and the Columbus Crew stadium is seen as the league model. At small sizes to fit these crowds, these filled stadiums create a great atmosphere without a bad seat in the house. In most venues the stands only go up 30 rows or so all the way around the field, and as big as a soccer field is, this creates 20,000 seats easy. These intimate and fun places result in happy fans, who have come back and been loyal to the teams. The atmospheres have been good, and that is what repeat customers are all about - a good time. Now, stadiums are used to sell out crowds even in this rough economy.
The league also started at a good size (ten teams). This was good for several reasons. First, it kept things simple enough to be kept up with and managed. Secondly, it kept things in the biggest soccer markets that could afford the teams. Third, it set the league up with plenty of expansion opportunities in the future. It was a great move as to not have failed franchises scattered across the country.
We all know that the European Leagues are the top in the world, with the South American leagues not far behind. But the MLS is pushing to make its mark on the world scene. The money will be there as these big markets further embrace their teams, and players such as Theirry Henry, Landon Donovan, Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Juan Pablo Angel are just a few of the names in this league.....There is a battle on the horizon for Donovan to stay at home or go to the English Premier League. 15 years ago, this would have been a no-brainer and a player such as Donovan would be long gone.
We all remember David Beckham was here for a while near the end of his career. His performances with the LA Galaxy were not up to his standards, but by choosing to sign on American soil, he sent a message that the league was no joke (even if the money he received was absurd, it still showed the money was here for soccer).
Summer of Soccer.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing the MLS has done to date is this summer's lineup of games against some of the top European teams in the world. As I know that these teams are the heart of world soccer, I am very interested to see how an average MLS team compares. I know these games are friendly matchups, but they are as close to the real thing as can get as continental pride is on the line.
Manchester United, Celtic, Tottenham and several other English Premier League clubs have all played games against MLS teams on the Premier League's North American Tour. The results have gone in the favor of the EPL teams, but all games have been sold out and very competitive. The MLS is in midseason, while the EPL is just getting underway. Therefore the MLS teams are in better shape at the moment, creating level matchups. This is great international exposure for the MLS. Also, several other MLS teams have been in games against teams such as Puebla, Pumas and Puchaca.
In what may end up being the highlight of the summer, Manchester United takes on the MLS All-Stars in one of the most creative all-star events I have ever heard of. Taking place from Reliant Stadium in Houston on July 28th, this will actually be worth the price of a ticket! Most all-star events are a joke. This will be for blood. I will watch this game like the World Cup final.
Manchester United is one of the most famous franchises in the world. They are more well known worldwide than the New York Yankees, and even in Philadelphia, their fans made up most of the 40,000 in attendance Wednesday night. Folks, not only were they the visitors in this match, but their home field is in freakin' England, 5,500 miles away! Clad in their signature red, they celebrated a hard fought 1-0 win over the young Philadelphia team. Even the electronic running board along the Lincoln Financial Field turf pumped Manchester United info the entire game. Crazy.
The MLS Today.
So who are the teams and who is doing well? That is the question nine out of ten of us couldn't answer, and makes my article seem like an oxy-moron. I thought you said America had embraced soccer and the MLS, Top Fan? And yet nobody knows the teams? Shame on me.
The league started with ten teams, and now is at 16 teams. Two teams have folded over the 14-year history of the league (Miami and Tampa), while three cities await expansion in 2011 (Vancouver, Montreal and Portland). While many of the teams are independently owned, several teams are owned by foreign groups who also own teams in other leagues worldwide. An example is CD Chivas, who is owned by a Mexcian group and has a Guadalajara Chivas team in a seperate league in Mexico.
The MLS Cup game is coming from Toronto and is TBD...
Here are the standings:
|2||New York Red Bulls||26||16||8||6||2||18||19||-1|
|5||Kansas City Wizards||16||16||4||8||4||13||20||-7|
|6||New England Revolution||14||15||4||9||2||15||26||-11|
|1||Los Angeles Galaxy||39||17||12||2||3||27||8||19|
|2||Real Salt Lake||30||16||9||4||3||28||13||15|
|5||San Jose Earthquakes||22||14||6||4||4||18||16||2|
|7||Seattle Sounders FC||19||17||5||8||4||18||24||-6|
1996: DC United
1997: DC United
1998: Chicago Fire
1999: DC United
2000: Kansas City Wizards
2001: San Jose Earthquakes
2002: LA Galaxy
2003: San Jose Earthquakes
2004: DC United
2005: LA Galaxy
2006: Houston Dynamo
2007: Houston Dynamo
2008: Columbus Crew
2009: Real Salt Lake
So thanks to youth soccer and the MLS, American soccer is going places. Can our country ever win a World Cup? That is a question that even some of the great soccer nations such as the Netherlands wonder. The answer can't be a black and white yes or no, but I do think that soccer here is on a roll, and with a population as large as ours, we will be in the mix in every Cup from here on out. The MLS is a league that has credibilty and quality, and is here to stay. It is a goal now for Americans to play at home in a world-class league for a world-class club, and that is what will keep soccer in the main picture here in the USA...
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