MLS foundation is in place for football to flourish in the United States

Twenty-one years after Major League Soccer started in 1996, the competition continues to expand and strengthen, with rising crowds, more football-specific stadia and marquee signings.

Near-capacity crowds indicate more and more people in the United States are warming up to football. Andy Mitten for The National
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From Portland to Seattle on the United States Pacific North West coast to Atlanta in the south, New York in the north east and Toronto in neighbouring Canada, association football is booming.

The tours of the United States during July by some of Europe’s biggest clubs - including Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United - have highlighted what an important market it is for them, but also that the interest is there.

The game has long been a mass participation sport among young North Americans, but now it is becoming a mass spectator sport, too, with an expanding league and demand from cities to take part in the boom.

Watch Real Madrid following here:

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One of the conditions of Fifa awarding the United States the 1994 World Cup was that the country promised to establish a professional association football (soccer) league.

Twenty-one years after the MLS started in 1996 with only 10 teams, the competition continues to expand and strengthen, with rising crowds, more football-specific stadia and marquee signings like David Villa playing while they are still at a very high level.

Rivalries have been established, second-tier teams attract five-figure average crowds and profitable balance sheets after a combined loss of US$350 million (Dh1.2 billion) in the first eight years.

Scott French, a writer for FourFourTwo based in Los Angeles, grew up watching  in the 1970s and is a regular at LA Galaxy games. He suggests that there have been key milestones which have helped the sport known there as football progress in the US.

“The 1994 World Cup was huge,” French said. “The interest here is like night and day compared to what it was before 1994. It is much increased.

The World Cup opened the eyes of the general public that there was this other world out there which million of people cared about. It was a big party, too, and the US is big on events. The World Cup had that gravitas.

“There is a growing sophistication in how the game is watched, in the fan culture and how the game is developing. MLS has become a big deal in the communities that it is in. It’s not necessarily covered by the mainstream media but it’s a bigger sport than hockey in this country now. It’s a sport for the future.”

As football continued to grow, the US staged the 1999 Women’s World Cup.

“That was the next big step and the iconic event of that year,” French explains. “It was as big as the ’94 World Cup for a lot of Americans because we were a powerhouse. In the men’s, we want to reach the quarter-finals. With the women, if they don’t win then it’s a disappointment.”

A highlight from the Madrid-Barca friendly

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The US men’s national team had a surprise of their own, unexpectedly reaching the last eight of the 2002 World Cup finals. That helped the sport’s profile as did the arrival of David Beckham, arguably the most recognisable footballer of his generation, who joined LA Galaxy in 2007 from Real Madrid.

“There’s a before and after Beckham,” French says. “There was a worry before Beckham than MLS wouldn’t survive. The level of play at some clubs wasn’t improving and there wasn’t a lot to draw in new fans. The people who knew about MLS knew and the people who didn’t weren’t going to find out.

“Beckham helped them find out. After Beckham, that disappeared. He ushered in a level of players we’d not seen in this league and they helped us raise standards.

“Standards still have to rise, but MLS is growing, it has a much larger fan base, but media coverage can be patchy. ESPN, which has covered soccer for years, has very little soccer on its flagship Sports Centre news show. It’s still [American] football, basketball and baseball.”

Key Beckham moments in MLS

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Average crowds have surpassed those for NBA (which are restricted by indoor arenas) and NHL, while Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard, Kaka, Andrea Pirlo, Didier Drogba, Juan Pablo Angel and Frank Lampard are other big names who have gone to the States.

Ashley Cole, who plays for the most successful club, LA Galaxy, is settled and living in a city offering an enviable lifestyle.

Fan bases in individual cities can be immense.

Atlanta United, a new club, currently average 46,4820. In Seattle, the average is 42,714 – more than European giants like Valencia or both Milan sides.

Even Columbus Crew, the lowest-supported team with an average of 14,437, are better supported than three teams in Spain’s Primera Liga last season.

Pirlo - one of many MLS superstars

“Portland has embraced soccer, with a successful men and women’s team,” French continues. “It’s a massive part of their culture. In Kansas, the interest is huge. In Canada, the support in Toronto is incredible. In Orlando, the team there is doing really well.”

A further side will follow in Florida should a Miami franchise fronted by David Beckham be accepted as expected in 2019 as the league seeks to expand from its current 22 clubs towards 28, taking advantage of a wave of enthusiasm only formerly associated with the New York Cosmos in the 1970s.

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“The atmosphere is the stadiums is so good that people want to come back,” French states. “They have a connection with the players and other fans. There are fans who come who are still learning what it’s all about, but there’s a base of fans, probably 30 million strong, who know all about the game.”

Journalists enjoy privileged access, too, with players interviewed in the dressing rooms immediately after games.

“Of course you’ll have times when the players are tired and don’t want to speak to someone who has written something bad about them, but players weren’t paid very well when the league started and knew it needed promoting.

“Some of the new players don’t know what we’ve had to go through to get to this point, but the access here is much better than what we hear about in Europe.”

French believes that Villa of New York City, part of the City group of clubs which includes Manchester City, has been MLS’s best player, but he is also optimistic about young American players like teenager Christian Pulisic who plays for Borussia Dortmund.

Pulisic in action

"He's the first player that we've had who we can see as being truly world class," concludes French, who was speaking to The National at half time during the LA Galaxy-Manchester United friendly.

“Landon Donovan was world class in some ways, but not others. With Pulisic, you can see him becoming a true superstar and that lights the way for a lot of young players in this country.”

So who are the fans?

In LA, a group of Hispanic locals stand around a tent outside the 27,000 capacity StubHub centre which offers shade from the sun before matches. They wear LA Galaxy jerseys and they travel to away games too.

“I live locally in LA County,” says one, Jonathan Suarez. “We have three fan groups here, we create a great atmosphere. I stand in a group which sings for 90 minutes. We take our influences from Mexican fan culture. We’re rivals with the other Californian team from San Jose, but we’re looking forward two other teams joining the league in LA and Sacramento.”

Darren Maloney, a Mancunian who lives near San Francisco, is a regular attender at MLS games.

“I take my two boys to watch San Jose Earthquakes because it’s a good day out,” says the Manchester United fan who works in the technology sector. “They have food trucks, games for kids and the largest bar in North America behind the goal.

“You can get there a few hours before the game and the kids can run around and have fun. I pay around $20 for tickets, with no reductions for kids.

“The parking is more expensive than the tickets, but it’s still good value and there’s a diverse crowd, with an ultras section where they create a noisy atmosphere.

“Tickets are also easily available. We’re spoiled for sport in the Bay area with the Golden State Warriors, the best basketball team in the world, but tickets to see them are scarce and expensive. Tickets are also pricey for the San Francisco 49s NFL team and the Oakland raiders [soon to be LA Raiders], but they only have eight home games each year. You can get tickets for the Giants and the A’s in baseball, but I’m a football man.”

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Maloney thinks that the football level is similar to England’s second-tier Championship – and wages are also similar with the average MLS player paid $315,000 – though most earn below $100,000 with the club’s $3.8m total salary cap unevenly distributed between designated star players and the rest.

“The teams are well drilled and the players are fit,” is Maloney’s judgement, “but flair is lacking, as is the decision-making of better established leagues.”

One expert opinion about how it can improve comes from Gary Bailey, the former Manchester United and England goalkeeper who now lives in Miami and comments on football.

“Football is growing here big time. We have big name players coming over, the standard isn’t bad at all, but the league is set up with no promotion of relegation so something is missing to stop it being the way it should be. They’ve come a long way though and I’m very optimistic about the future of soccer here.”

It appears that finally the US is about to succumb to football’s spell, after resisting its blandishments for so long.