(Juan Pablo Angel of your first place New York Red Bulls, doing his best to be an ambassador for the beautiful game)
While fully admitting MLS’ quality of play leaves a bit to be desired (“judged solely on footballing quality, a typical MLS side is more mid-table Championship level, and perhaps slightly better than the average Scottish Premier League team,”) The Independent’s Nick Harris chimes in with one of those “soccer is getting bigger in the US” articles that appear every couple of years in the UK pates (often followed by a dismissive piece mocking the team names and/or invisible crowds).
Anyone can find ammunition to dismiss MLS as a tin-pot set-up with marginal appeal. And if you want to poke fun at the wacky venue names then Dick’s Sporting Goods Park and Pizza Hut Park are begging to be ridiculed.
The flip side? The MLS is comfortable in its own skin, ambitious (a red rag to cynical bulls, especially British ones), determined to grow from its niche in the shadow of NFL, MLB and NBA, and, errrm, quite stable and successful, actually.
Indicators? After 11 completed seasons, average gates were 15,509 in 2006, which was higher than at any point in the history of its forerunner, the NASL, where the average was 3,163 in 1971. NASL gates peaked at 14,201 in 1980, and that despite the star-spangled, capacity-pulling antics of the Cosmos. Current MLS gates are only a few thousand behind England’s Championship, which has just registered a 50-year high of 18,221 people per game.
The MLS, seeking to cast off football’s tag in America as “the perpetual sport of the future”, plans to expand to 15 teams by the 2008 season and 16 by 2010. It neither expects nor dreams of challenging the ” big three” of American football, baseball and basketball, but could certainly challenge ice hockey in the not too distant future.
Jeff L’Hote is a New York-based American expert in US soccer, and a director of FMM International, a global football consultancy. He recently co-authored a report, Soccer in North America: The Commercial Opportunities that weighs up the positives and negatives of the MLS, and concludes there are more of the former.
“There is clearly room for improvement – standard of play, attendance, converting the millions of children who play soccer in the US into supporters,” he said yesterday. “But MLS has never been in a more solid position.
Hopeful stuff to be sure, but given the state of the NHL’s TV ratings in the lower 48, perhaps Major League Soccer could be aiming a tad higher than “challenging ice hockey.” Surely fending off roller derby and televised diss battles is a more worthy ambition.