MLS expansion and the new era of U.S. soccer

MLS expansion and the new era of U.S. soccer

Photo Credits: DAVIS WHALEN / AGGIE

Soccer is rising in popularity in the U.S., and Major League Soccer is prepared to lead the way

For decades, soccer has been the global game. It attracts an estimated 4 billion fans worldwide, and is a crucial element of culture and national pride in many countries. But in the United States, a country saturated by other well-established sports, soccer has never picked up significant steam — until now. Maybe.

Major League Soccer (MLS) is the sport’s highest, most respected professional league in the United States. MLS played its inaugural season in 1996 with 10 teams and has been working to steadily expand ever since. But the league is fighting what has long been an uphill battle. After soccer’s novelty wore off in the U.S. and attendance and ratings plummeted, the league was forced to fold two teams (and almost ended up folding the entire league). But the MLS gradually clawed its way back up that hill, expanding to 19 teams by 2014.

In 2015, the league added teams in Orlando and New York City. Then in 2017, the league sanctioned expansion to clubs in Minnesota and Atlanta before adding Los Angeles FC to the list a year later. With the addition of FC Cincinnati in 2019, the league now boasts 24 teams with plans to expand more in the coming years. Inter Miami and Nashville FC will join the MLS next year, while Austin FC is expected to follow in 2021.

Additionally, United Soccer League teams (American soccer’s unofficial secondary league) in Sacramento and St. Louis have sent expansion bids to the MLS, with plans to privately finance their own soccer-only stadiums. Their candidacy is currently under review, with an official MLS announcement pending.

“Professional soccer at all levels is thriving in the United States and Canada and we believe there are many markets that could support a successful MLS club,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said in a statement. “Expansion during the last 15 years has been enormously successful and a key driver behind the league’s continued rise, and we are pleased that some of the top business and community leaders representing great markets in North America are aggressively pursuing MLS expansion clubs.”

And Garber should be pleased. Many of the expansion teams have sprung up in cities with existing professional clubs that want to make the jump to the MLS. But that jump comes with a steep price. FC Cincinnati and Nashville FC each paid $150 million to the MLS to join its ranks. Add that on to the construction of new stadiums (mostly privately funded) and there appears to be clear outside commitment to the MLS from those with the deepest pockets, and those who see opportunity in the direction the league is headed.

In 2018, broadcast viewership of the MLS was up 6% overall and up 5% on ESPN in the 25-54 demographic, while the 2018 MLS Cup reached its highest ratings since the league’s inaugural years with 1.56 million viewers on FOX. Perhaps most telling: a 2018 Gallup poll showed that soccer ranked only second to football among viewers between 18 and 34 in the United States.

Yet only two months into the 2019 MLS season, those numbers are down. In week 8, attendance averages for 20 of the 24 teams were down a hair in year-over-year metrics. Of the remaining four teams, LAFC and Montreal Impact have stayed put in attendance, while D.C. United and the Vancouver Whitecaps are the only teams with increased attendance, growing .03 and .05 percentage points, respectively.

During opening weekend this season, viewership was down 24% on Univision for the Orlando FC-New York City FC matchup, down 13% on ESPN for a match between D.C. United and defending champion Atlanta United FC, and down overall on Spanish-language TV for the third consecutive year. Additionally, MLS suffered its worst ratings of the season on April 14, with the matchup between Sporting Kansas City and New York City Red Bulls reaching only 90,000 people. In contrast, back-to-back Liga MX games (Mexico’s top soccer league) on April 13 and 14 attracted 1.1 million and 1.2 million viewers. So, MLS viewing numbers on the 14th may not be a tell-tale sign of decreasing popularity, but rather a sign of the MLS’s continued lack of popularity compared to other major soccer leagues across the globe.

So far, the MLS has been seen as similar to a retirement league — a place ageing international players are drawn to in their latter years where they can still be the face of a franchise and have an opportunity to make a real impact. Brazilian icon Kaká, renowned scorer Zlatan Ibrahimović and English legend Wayne Rooney represent some of the global stars who have found their way to the MLS on the back-half of their career. Now, the MLS is pushing to flip that script.

In an interview with ESPN, Garber said that the MLS is committed to “being part of the energy that drives the development of young players, the sale of young players, the buying of young players.” Because to gain popularity, you must gain talent.

Before the 2019 season, Atlanta United signed South American player of the year, Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez, after paying a record $14 million transfer fee. New York City FC signed 24-year-old Romanian star Alexandru Mitrita at a $8.5 million transfer fee before the season. Those two clubs aren’t yet meeting expectations in 2019, but their investment in young stars proves their commitment to changing the culture of the MLS.

But there’s still a long way to go. Of the biggest domestic hindrances to MLS growth and talent development is the lack of a clear youth-to-professional pipeline. In the U.S., the professional route is not nearly as strong — or visible — as it is in other countries or for other American sports.

But the MLS is working to change that narrative, too, starting with investments in the sport at the youth level. According to the New York Times, “the move towards compensation and solidarity payments comes as the league’s teams have increased their investment in player development. Last year, clubs collectively spent a record $75 million on their academies, and the additional funds offer the potential to increase that investment.”

For a country that doesn’t live, breathe and bleed soccer — and whose youth don’t grow up idolizing legends like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo — the U.S. is making a legitimate push to grow its own brand of soccer via the MLS, which develops young talent and pushes to be compensated for that procurement in one way or another.

“I do believe there is no city in this country that can’t support a Major League Soccer team with rabid fan base, with a great stadium plan, with a committed ownership group, with a community that will get beyond the club,” Garber told ESPN.

While the golden age of the MLS may not be today or tomorrow, it is certainly knocking at the door. Its success will hinge on investment in the process, in the seats of new stadiums, on the TV screens of new fans and on the pitch with the game’s most promising young stars.

Written by: Carson Parodi — sports@theaggie.org