x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

MLS may be a minority league in America but has sizeable ambitions

Major League Soccer has grown at a steady pace in America, backed by rising crowds, increased interest and a flow of star names, writes Andy Mitten.

David Beckham played his last match in the MLS, leading LA Galaxy to the title last December. Robyn Beck / AFP
David Beckham played his last match in the MLS, leading LA Galaxy to the title last December. Robyn Beck / AFP

Fifteen thousand football fans, many of them with complimentary tickets, many of them Hispanic, rattled around New Jersey's 80,000-seat Giants Stadium.

They were watching the clunkily named New York/New Jersey Metro Stars play the Kansas City Wizards, two of just 10 teams in the inaugural Major League Soccer [MLS] season.

It was July 1996, and the first attempt to establish a national, professional football league after the collapse of the North American Soccer League in 1984.

New York's last team had been Cosmos, famous in the 1970s for boasting players like Pele, Carlos Alberto, Franz Beckenbauer and Denis Tueart.

They folded in 1985, shortly after the NASL disbanded. At their peak in 1978, they claimed average crowds of 47,000 in Giants Stadium, but the dream died when the media lost interest in football.

Association football is now built on more solid foundations in the United States, with salary caps and home-grown players supplemented by expensive imports.

MLS is growing at a sensible pace, with improving standards and attendances, new purpose-built stadiums and televised games.

Establishing a national league was also a condition of the United States staging the 1994 Fifa World Cup.

By 1996, the league was ready for an inauspicious start. Crowds averaged an impressive 17,406, though the mainstream media were quick to sneer, especially if they felt the established sports of American football, basketball and baseball were threatened.

Those crowds would dip by 3,000 for the second season and did not rise above 15,000 again until 2002, when the US excelled in the 2002 World Cup.

They now claim their best-ever level of attendance at 18,807, yet the MLS continues to lose money – US$350 million (Dh1.2 billion) in the first 10 years of the league's existence.

Some individual clubs have managed to become profitable, including the Los Angeles Galaxy which, along with DC United, are the league's most successful club.

Galaxy signed David Beckham from Real Madrid in 2007 and along with fellow A-lister Thierry Henry, who joined the New York Red Bulls in 2011 and was attracted as much by the lifestyle and relative anonymity as the football, helped boost the profile of the sport further, though it was not just about international stars.

Further credibility came when players who had made their name in MLS started to join successful clubs in Europe.

Villarreal paid $10m for 18-year-old striker Jozy Altidore in 2008. Well-educated, articulate and prolific for the US national team Altidore was an impressive export who reflected well on the league.

At age 16 years, he was the youngest player to score in MLS history when he netted for the New York Red Bulls – the name for the New York/New Jersey Metro Stars since 2006. Red Bull changed the club's colours, name and logo, which would be considered sacrilege in other countries.

Specific stadiums, typically with capacities of 25,000, were built at eight venues, the first in Columbus, Ohio, in 1999.

By 2011, the league reported that crowds had risen to 17,872, higher than average attendances for NBA and NHL.

With average crowds of 40,000, the Seattle Sounders – one of the new teams in an expanding league which currently has 19 clubs – are the best supported, followed by Canadian side Montreal Impact with 25,000.

Several teams sell more than 90 per cent of their tickets and switch to bigger NFL venues if demand dictates.

Only one club, Chivas USA, who are linked to the famous Mexican side of the same name and are well supported by Mexicans in Los Angeles, average less than 10,000.

Chivas wear the same kit, have a similar badge and the same owner as their more famous "big-brother" club across the border.

MLS still has a long way to go to match the 64,000 average crowds of the NFL, but it already claims the eighth-highest average attendance in world football, higher than the first divisions in Brazil, Argentina and Japan.

"The crowds are incredible," says former Inter Milan, Manchester United and Arsenal defender Mikael Silvestre, now of the Portland Timbers, who sell out their 20,500 capacity home for every game.

"They're passionate, they sing songs. The only thing they cannot do is follow the team to all the away games because the distances are so big."

The closest team to Portland is in Seattle, 150 miles away. The second-closest is San Jose, California, 660 miles to the south.

The MLS is one of the few leagues in world football which does not run in accordance with the Fifa calendar, but instead operate a spring-to-fall system, which means it is without its best players when there are big international tournaments in June and July.

In their defence, the MLS have stated that playing games in a snowbound Toronto in January will not be practical and they have no current plans to synchronise with the rest of the leagues. This offers one advantage to players and a club like Manchester City.

The league stages their annual showpiece All-Star game against a visiting, usually English, side. The 2010 version attracted 70,000 to see Manchester United in Houston.

Football continues to gain traction and goodwill in the States, and positive publicity as the MLS continues to be the world's most up-and-coming league, with more games televised thanks to a new deal with beIn Sport, a Qatari subsidiary of Al Jazeera.

The announcement of the foundation of MLS's 20th club in New York City is a vote of confidence in football in the United States, which seems to be laying down firm foundations in a country where, although widely played by schoolchildren, it has so far been a fragile, minority professional sport.


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