I didn’t attend an MLS match until the early 2000s. In Columbus for the weekend for my brother’s soccer tournament, my family headed out to Columbus Crew Stadium to see the Columbus Crew take on the Chicago Fire. I don’t remember anything about the football, but I do remember a middle-aged man sitting several rows ahead of us growing increasingly frustrated with the home side for allowing some kid named Justin Mapp (“How are you letting him do this? It’s JUSTIN MAPP!”) run all over them.
That was more than a decade ago, and as MLS celebrates its 20th season this year, a lot has changed – and a lot hasn’t. Justin Mapp continues running all over defenses, now a seasoned veteran in a league that is coming of age. Columbus Crew Stadium – once the only soccer-specific stadium in MLS, the pride of the league – is a remnant of the struggles of soccer to gain a foothold in America, as world-class facilities like Red Bull Arena and Children’s Mercy Park spring up around the country. And I, a long way from the early days of my soccer fandom, hold season tickets for New York City FC with a few of my closest friends.
MLS isn’t quite a world-class league, and many prefer watching a team thousands of miles away on television to standing with their neighbors, cheering on the local club. But many others do prefer the peaks and troughs of supporting their local club, and the result has been great growth and a league that I’m proud to have in America, warts and all. Here’s a breakdown of how things have changed in even the short time I’ve been following MLS.
Invoking the “retirement league” trope now makes the speaker look out of touch. It’s true that MLS, even in the last five years, has signed a number of big names who are past their prime and looking for that final paycheck. Rafael Marquez, the storied Mexican captain, is a prime example, as he walked through several seasons for New York Red Bulls, collecting huge paychecks, making no impact, and then complaining that the level of play was too low, when it was apparent to all that he was the worst player on the field.
But today, for every Frank Lampard (who famously “signed” with NYCFC, only to be sent on loan to parent club Manchester City, only for it to come out that he never had a contract with NYCFC and had in fact signed with Man City, only for him to finally arrive in MLS six months after the start of the season, only for him to spend the vast majority of his time here injured or “injured”) there’s a David Villa, Kaka, Giovinco, or Gio Dos Santos – big name players who impact every game they are in. The Designated Player rule, arbitrarily created to allow Los Angeles to pay David Beckham the requisite sum to be lured to the City of Angels, has been increasingly employed to sign players that I’ve never heard of, players intended to make an impact on the pitch and to fill seats and earn shirt sales not on the reputation of their past, but on the reputation they build at the MLS club. Often, the players are on the younger end of the spectrum – great news for those trying to build their careers in MLS.
This has led to better play on the field, and players being interested in MLS as a stepping stone to a European contract. Everyone is competitive. Players who want a final paycheck – Raul, for example, who was convinced to play for the New York Cosmos, or Kleberson, who failed in Philadelphia and enjoyed two seasons as a squad player for Indianapolis Eleven – now go to the North American Soccer League, the United States’ second division.
Perhaps this section should have been entitled “The Money,” because that’s the real driver in signing – and retaining – ever-better talent. But more than that, teams know they can’t get away with signing any household name anymore (Ronaldinho can’t get any MLS clubs to answer the phone). Players have to deliver. And that’s because of…
I remember attending my first New York Red Bulls game in 2008, when the club played at Giants Stadium – an 80,000-seat stadium that was, at the time, approximately 70,000 seats too large. The average age around me was probably 10 years old. One young fan started a chant that has become famous among my friends: “Let’s go Red Bulls, let’s go, cracker jack!”
I don’t know what that means either, but I do know that things in the stands have changed. Youth teams still show up for the games (as well they should), but they’re no longer the dominant demographic in MLS (at least, in New York) the way they once were. Again, that responsibility now falls to the second division – aside from a few hundred dedicated adult fans, the majority of attendees at the average New York Cosmos match are under the age of 18. At MLS stadiums, hundreds of fans (where once there was dozens) stand in supporters sections behind the goal, complete with flags and tifo and songs and chants, a unique blend ofContinental European, English, and Latin American support styles. More impressively, hundreds travel to away matches in support of their clubs, a much greater feat in the expanses of North America than on the cramped isles of Great Britain. Attendance in 2015 was an all-time high, leaving MLS with the 7th-highest average attendance among soccer leagues in the world.
There are two types of MLS fan – the convert, and the newbie. The convert has watched and played soccer for years, and probably has a favorite Premier League club, but only after watching the game played elsewhere has arrived in an MLS stadium. Perhaps a purist, or perhaps interested in being a part of a local tradition in a way impossible to the American fan of an English club 3,000 miles away, the convert has gravitated to the local club in order to take in the beautiful game in the way God intended: live and in person.
The relationship of the convert with the newbie is complex. The convert recognizes the necessity of the newbie – clearly, years of only converts in the stands didn’t yield the attendance figures desired – yet rolls her eyes at the newbie’s suggestions for “optimizing the game,” or the newbie’s lack of understanding of the offside rule.
Both jump and sing together behind goals around North America. Both sit and stand and sit and stand as chances come and go around increasingly better grounds in North America. On average, the North American soccer fan is more dedicated and more knowledgeable than in years past, and that only says good things about where the game will go in the United States. In New York City, it’s not uncommon to see players in pick-up games wearing NYCFC or Red Bulls jerseys, something that would have been unusual a decade ago.
I’ve already mentioned two of the best in Red Bull Arena and Children’s Mercy Park. Philadelphia Union have an excellent stadium in Talen Energy Stadium.
But poor stadiums still plague parts of the league. D.C. United is winning a battle to get out of RFK Stadium, which is literally a decaying cavern. My own NYCFC play at Yankee Stadium on a field better suited in size and quality to 7v7 soccer, and a stadium deal in the difficult New York City real estate market will be a challenge, to say the least.
The difference between now and the past? Today, the money is available, and the demand for the facilities is proven. MLS 3.0 is here, and it will take the form of world-class facilities, and not just for the first team – Atlanta United, set to join the league in 2017, just announced a 32-acre training facility that will apparently rival the best.
But it’s ours. America has taken ownership of its league. The dream of a complete, legitimate league in the United States is here, and it’s only getting better every year.
If you want to be a part of the next wave of great American soccer players, skip MLS and go straight to the Premier League, get called up to the United States national team, and win the World Cup, then a great place to start is with the Boost Futbol YouTube channel. ;)
Author: Sam Kilb
We are happy to welcome Sam to our blog team. It's great to have multiple perspectives on soccer instead of just my own. To learn more about Sam and his love for the beautiful game, please click here!