MLS growth marks new age in U.S. soccer

MLS growth marks new age in U.S. soccer
August 15, 2013, 9:45 am
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The USMNT is currently on a streak of 11 victories, which vaulted the team to a No. 19 world ranking. (USA TODAY IMAGES)

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The Sounders posted an MLS-record transfer fee of $8 million to acquire USMNT captain Clint Dempsey. (USA TODAY IMAGES)

Nine MLS teams are averaging around 20,000 fans per game this year. Nine Major League Baseball teams are averaging less than 25,000 a game.
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A recent sports business seminar in the Silicon Valley featured Major League Soccer (MLS) Commissioner Don Garber as the keynote speaker. There was special emphasis on the new stadium that the San Jose Earthquakes are building in San Jose and will play in either at the end 2014 or the start of the 2015 season. Garber presented his league in its most positive light, leaving his audience with the feeling that the sport of soccer is picking up steam in America.

Major League Soccer, which was formed as part of the United State's 1994 World Cup bid, is now in its 18th year, making it the longest-living American top-tier professional outdoor soccer league. MLS is past the point where it's worried about survival. The league is growing in size, scope, quality of play and credibility on the world soccer stage.

Several key metrics demonstrate this growth, and indicate that MLS is moving in a positive direction:

Soccer-Specific Stadiums:
The MLS has been aided by the attendance bumps that come from opening new stadiums. Houston and Montreal in 2012. Portland, Kansas City and the renovated BC Place in Vancouver in 2011. Mega markets New York and Philadelphia in 2010.

The Montreal Impact, whose Stade Saputo opened last year, are averaging over 21,000 patrons a game.

In 2012, MLS averaged 18,807 fans per game, marking the high-water mark in the league's history.

Cascadia Craziness:
If you have reservations about fevered fan support and knowledge of the beautiful game, pay a trip to the land of Cascadia, which in MLS terms is represented by Seattle, Portland and Vancouver. The Sounders lead the league with a season base of over 35,000 season tickets. The Portland Timbers Army of 5,000 strong equals any stadium's fanatic support group in North America.

Top 20 Ranking:
The United States Men’s National Team is currently on a streak of 11 victories, including winning the CONCACAF Gold Cup, which has vaulted the team to number 19 world ranking. The Earthquakes' Chris Wondolowski has become a player to watch with a slew of goals scored for the national side in his last two games. The U.S. faces Mexico in a World Cup qualifying match in Columbus on Sept. 10.

[RELATED: MLS standings | MLS schedule]

World Cup 2016:
The World Cup in Brazil will be a trampoline for even more interest and participation in soccer in the United States. Merchandise will be flying off shelves and TV ratings will be the highest ever.

Transfers back to home turf:
Clint Dempsey, one of the best strikers in United States history, is coming home to the soccer hotbed of Seattle. The veteran of two World Cups and United States team captain is leaving his successful career at Fulham F.C. and Tottenham Hotspur F.C. in the English Premier League to play on his home turf. The key point here is the MLS-record transfer fee of $8 million.

MLS Expansion:
The MLS recently announced plans to expand by four teams by 2020. St. Louis, Orlando, Miami, San Antonio are among the viable cities. Other United States leagues should be considering contraction, but the MLS has potential cities and owners knocking on their door.

Attendance:
The Seattle Sounders are averaging over 41,000 in attendance through July this season. Nine MLS teams are averaging close to, or over 20,000 per game. As a comparison, nine Major League Baseball teams are averaging 25,000 less or more a game this season.

Kid Kickers:
Thirty percent of American households contain someone playing soccer, a figure second only to baseball. Increasing numbers of Americans, having played the game in their youth, are now avid spectators. A 2012 sports poll ranked soccer as the No. 2 most popular sport in the country for individuals aged 12-to-24. As the United States' Hispanic population increases, so does the popularity of soccer. We are seeing more and more U.S. soccer players and fans wearing the jerseys of their favorite MLS and national teams, along with the kits of international soccer sides.

Big Events:
We love big events in this country. The 1994 World Cup and Olympics were major examples of SRO crowds and media interest. The U.S and Mexican national teams have been playing in front of crowds in excess of 60,000 in the U.S. in recent years. The 2011 Gold Cup final between the U.S. and Mexico at the Rose Bowl drew over 93,000 fans -- a record high for a soccer match not played in the World Cup or Summer Olympics.

In recent years, many top-division European and South American clubs have been turnstile turners through their preseason summer "friendly" schedule, playing matches in the United States.

Overnight Success only took 50 years:
The North American Soccer League created a splash with Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia back in the 1970s. The traction of the MLS in the last few years has been built on the shoulders of many who tried and failed. The league is only beginning to see what lies ahead.

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