In his most recent article for popular sports blog The Athletic, Minnesota-based soccer writer Jeff Rueter summed up the current state of Major League Soccer plainly and swiftly: “Either we have a soccer system that might one day take its place alongside other respected leagues around the world, or MLS is just another North American sports business operation.”
He was referencing the ongoing debacle between the Columbus Crew, one of the 10 founding MLS clubs that arrived with the league 23 years ago, and its owner Anthony Precourt, who is under fire from various pundits and supporters for his proposition to move the Crew from its Ohio home to Austin, Texas.
This issue has fueled the debate of community versus cash in a sport that traditionally entrenches itself in its resident culture. More importantly, this issue puts the microscope on a league whose popularity is skyrocketing in the midst of an identity crisis.
Precourt’s decision to move the Crew isn’t controversial so much because of its literal and immediate implications but more because of its lasting impact on shifting the values of America’s soccer culture – especially after the U.S. men’s national team failed to qualify for last summer’s World Cup.
A league that harps on being unique in a country that values money more than anything is a recipe for disaster. Conversely, a league that makes smart, calculated and bold decisions while taking equal amounts of inspiration from its domestic and foreign counterparts can potentially foster sustained global success.
I am of the belief that most American soccer fans show up to matches and support their clubs because they are hungry for progress. Average attendance numbers for the MLS in 2017 rank third in the U.S., falling behind the National Football League and Major League Baseball with 22,113, a nearly 60 percent increase since 2000.
The league’s two most popular teams, the Seattle Sounders and Atlanta United, have set 12 of the last 15 single-game attendance records. Atlanta boasted a 48,200 average attendance in its very first season in the league in 2017, revealing a strong desire for rigorous and passionate fandom.
Perhaps the most promising number of all, soon-to-be MLS club FC Cincinnati, which currently plays in the second division of American soccer, hosted an average of 21,199 fans per game last season, breaking its own record from 2016.
MLS has garnered a substantial following overseas with foreigners admiring the league’s unmatched parity, comparable to most American sports, in which any team is capable of winning because of each club’s balance of superstar talent and squad depth.
The biggest soccer clubs in the world similarly value the U.S. as a hotbed for brand growth and exposure. FC Barcelona, which plays in Spain’s first division, recently opened offices in New York City for this reason alone.
German powerhouse Bayern Munich also signed former Vancouver Whitecaps homegrown prospect Alphonso Davies last summer for a record $22 million. Born at a refugee camp in Ghana, Davies eventually moved to Canada and rose through the ranks of Vancouver’s youth system.
The signing was arguably the most important and impactful in the league’s history, showing that a league with only two decades of youth development can produce world-class talent.
For MLS to have this much momentum in such a brief amount of time is unprecedented for American sports, even when the competition and level of play overseas are miles ahead of where the league is at, currently.
All in all, it’s inevitable that the MLS will continue to grow into one of the most popular leagues in the U.S., but being taken seriously on the world stage starts with keeping the founding clubs where they belong. Using money as a catalyst, not the deciding factor, is crucial to its ascent.
Spencer Golanka writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at