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MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER
IS ON THE RISE
BILL WOOD | FEBRUARY 3, 2019
As I sit down at my Mac to pen this article, it is the morning of Super Bowl LIII. In just a few scant hours, the mighty New England Patriots will face off with the upstart Los Angeles Rams in what is surely our nation's greatest televised spectacle. It's an event that was Number One on my sports viewing list for decades, a day that truly celebrates two of America's greatest modern contributions; television and football. And yet there's currently only one sport on my mind.
For many American sports fans, especially us older guys, soccer is still a tough sell. I should know, I was on the other side of the fence for 40 years. For four decades I was one of those dudes who thought that soccer was boring, that it didn't have enough scoring, that it lacked the eye-popping flair of basketball and the bone-crushing impact of (American) football and hockey. Baseball? Well, that's a beast unto itself which I hope to discuss at a later date. Soccer was what those guys overseas played, fans went nuts for it, even died for it. I never got it. For the sake of brevity, I won't recall the entire story of how I eventually came to fall in love with what is now my favorite sport in the entire world. Let's just say that it happened.
Major League Soccer is the relatively new American soccer league formed in 1996. Since its inception, the league has had its growing pains, with clubs folding and rebranding, but today the league is thriving. Expansion is on the rise, Cincinnati starts in 2019, with Nashville, Miami and Austin not far behind. Beyond that, cities such as St. Louis and Sacramento are bidding for MLS expansion franchises. TV viewership is on the rise, seeing a steady increase every year since 2014.* Attendance is on the upswing as well, with newcomers Atlanta United—league champions in just their second season—drawing upwards of 70,000 per match, rivaling some of the biggest audiences in South America and Europe as well as the recent World Cup.
So what makes soccer—and MLS in particular—so amazing? Let's start with what takes place on the pitch (soccer term for field). The action is fast-paced and usually very back-and-forth, with no commercial breaks except for halftime. That's right, while every other sport can't wait for the opportunity to pump the brakes and sell you a Pepsi or a Ford F-150, soccer has to wait (at least) 45 minutes. To be fair, soccer makes up for this by selling you products right on the front of the jersey, but it's a trade-off most fans happily accept. And while It's true that soccer has a dearth of scoring compared to other sports, that just makes the goals even more exciting. Go to a live match and watch the crowd erupt when a goal is scored, I swear you will never forget it. Is it anti-climactic to spend 90 minutes of your life watching a 0-0 draw? It can be, but I've also seen plenty of good matches with no scoring, and in all my years of attending matches, I've actually only seen one 0-0 draw.
As for Major League Soccer, there are a variety of factors that make it interesting. First is the dedication to remain true to the sport of soccer; There are no sudden death overtimes, no cheerleaders, no extensive rule modifications, nothing that would dilute the on-field product in order to entice national consumers. The only real concession to American fans is a playoff system, which European leagues do not feature. Second, talent levels are steadily on the rise due to both a wealth of homegrown players and interest from superstars abroad. Nagodoches, Texas native Clint Dempsey recently left the Premier League to join the MLS' Seattle Sounders (Clint retired in 2018), and all-time soccer legend and self-proclaimed god Zlatan Ibrahimovic currently calls Los Angeles Galaxy his home. And if you haven't seen Zlatan in action, please head over to YouTube immediately.
But what about non-sports fans? I can only tell you that the "sports-adverse" friends I've taken to MLS matches seem to have a much better time than other sporting events I've taken them to. There's a level of participation with your fellow supporters, a camaraderie that doesn't exist anywhere else. If you're like most of us you'll feel right at home, you'll sing at the top of your lungs, you may even high-five and hug total strangers, then go right back to ignoring them. Also, since there's a fair amount of creativity involved in soccer, the sport gets a lot of love from the artist community (as you can see on this very site!).
If you love sports, you really owe it to yourself to check out the 2019 MLS season. If you don't love sports, well, you still may want to check it out. So, where to start watching? I subscribe to ESPN+, it's the best deal out there. For five bucks a month you get every nearly MLS regular season game. I'd recommend signing up for the free one-week trial to check it out. Or better yet, attend a live MLS match if there's one in your area. Top-level professional soccer is a sporting spectacle all unto itself, it really needs to be experienced first-hand to be appreciated. - BW
*Source = Wikipedia