Soccer in America has been growing at a rapid pace in the last few years. Ratings have gone up and more kids playing soccer. The MLS goal is to not only reach the popularity of the major sports leagues in the U.S, but to also be as competitive as the European top tier clubs. That comes with time and development, but how far are the MLS to reach that goal?
The Progress of Expanding the League
The MLS has done a great job in expanding its league. Ten years ago, the league only had 19 teams. Now it has grown to 28 teams in 10 years. Two of those expansion teams, Atlanta F.C and NYCFC, have already won an MLS Cup.
These expansions teams have already broken new records in the MLS. Nashville F.C opened their new stadium Geodis Park early May. It is the largest soccer stadium in MLS with a capacity of 30,000. Charlotte F.C made its inaugural start earlier in the season with an attendance of 74,479 at Bank of America Stadium. This was a new MLS new record in attendance for their match against the Galaxy.
Next season the MLS will welcome St. Louis City F.C as their 29th team to enter the league. There are also talks with Vegas on a possible expansion team. This can hopefully give the MLS their goal of a 30-team league.
Still a young league, the MLS has done an excellent job in not only creating expansion teams but drawing the interest of fans of these new cities. Nashville, for example, a team widely known for its football and hockey team, were electric during their first game at Geodis Park, selling out the stadium in its first game there. Atlanta F.C also has the highest attendance in the MLS with an average of 43,965 spectators per game.
MLS Catching up to NHL
Soccer has already passed Hockey in popularity in the United States last year. The viewership for English Premier League games and the Euro Cup surpasses viewers for an average NHL game. The Stanley Cup finals in 2021 only averaged 2.52 million views across U.S broadcast, while the MLS final averaged 1.6 viewers.
Each season the average viewers for MLS games have been going up. In 2021, the MLS averaged 276,000 viewers per games, increased from 233,000 viewers per game in 2020. The NHL, however, has not seen a chance in viewers in the last few years.
Soccer has become very popular with younger children and adults. The 2020 Euro Cup final last year between Italy and England was the most watched European championship game in the U.S with 6,488,000 viewers, more than twice the viewers for the Stanley Cup finals last year.
The MLS is projected to pass the NHL in popularity in the next few years, even baseball too, and owner of LAFC Larry Bird is fully confident that it will because of the young generation’s interest in the sport.
”We definitely have the demographics in our favor, both in terms of youth and diversity. So I think we’ll pass baseball and hockey and be the No. 3 sport in the U.S. behind football and basketball.” said Bird to SI.
International Players Coming to the MLS
It has been a trend in the last few years for big international players to come to the MLS to either end their careers or restart it. Several current stars including Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo, and James Rodriguez have already opened their interest in playing in the MLS before their careers end. It all started with David Beckham, when he was one of the main international stars to come to the MLS and began the trend for the rest of the internationals.
Shortly after Beckham went to Los Angeles to play for the Galaxy, French superstar and ex Barcelona player Thierry Henry came to New York to play for the Red Bulls. The import of international players has helped the league increase fans and help the style of play for several teams.
The MLS has also helped save the careers of some players. After a fallout in both the Argentinian National team and his club teams of Chelsea and Juventus, Gonzalo Higuain signed a contract with Inter Miami and has helped restart his career. He so far has 15 goals in 46 games with Miami over 3 seasons.
The MLS has also helped Mexican starts Carlos Vela and Chicharito get back to their career after fallouts with their European clubs. Vela with LAFC has 61 goals in 97 games and Chicharito has 24 goals in 44 games with the Galaxy.
Other notable international players to play in the MLS were long time Manchester United player Wayne Rooney, Brazilian legend Kaka, and 2014 World Cup winner Bastian Schweinsteiger. These international players are what help attract fans to watch the MLS. Back when NYCFC first started, they signed three huge stars in David Villa, Frank Lampard, and Andrea Pirlo, who helped attract fans in the New York City area to support the club.
When Will the MLS Catch Up to Europe?
The questions all come down to when will the MLS catch up to Europe? Right now, it is still a working progress. The MLS has finally caught up to Liga MX after a successful CONCACAF Champions league run. Three MLS teams had made it to the quarterfinals compared to two teams from Mexico. The Sounders took home the trophy, defeating the Pumas from Mexico. This snapped Mexico club’s 16-year streak of victories in the CONCACAF Champions League.
The MLS is still adjusting to different styles of plays. Most of its teams play with a counterattack to the goal. Teams in Europe, like Barcelona or Liverpool, play very tactical with its tiki taka and passes to the goals. European club also have more skillful players that can dribble with the ball compared to the MLS players.
Looking at the current USMNT roster, plenty of their players are actively playing in big European clubs. Their style of plays is very similar to Europe, and soon enough the Americans will adapt to the same style.
With the league only 29 years old, it would like to work on being the top three sports leagues in America as well. The progress they are making is great and will soon enough meet those goals. However, to match the competition in Europe will be a stretch. They are still far behind but are making good progress and will continue in the same trend for years to come.