Soccer, or what the rest of the globe calls football, is easily the world’s most popular sport. Only the Summer Olympics rivals The World Cup as a global sporting competition. In most nations premier athletes are identified and steered to soccer at increasingly young ages, just like football and basketball prospects in America.
But the USA, at least when it comes to men’s competition, has always lagged behind the rest of the world in terms of soccer, both from a playing and popularity standpoint.
But now Major League Soccer (MLS) feels it is changing things. The league celebrated the start of its 25th anniversary last weekend, welcoming new teams in Nashville and Miami. Once a 10-team operation, MLS will expand to 30 by 2022. Games are airing on multiple networks, and the Friday sports sections of several national newspapers had as many MLS stories as they did NFL combine, NBA and NCAA basketball pieces.
MLS owners are even throwing out challenges to their sporting competitors. “In 10 years, we’ll pass baseball and hockey to be the third-biggest sport in the U.S.,” Larry Berg, lead managing owner of Los Angeles F.C. told the New York Times. “I see in 25 years the whole world watching our game on television,” added Gregg Berhalter, a former MLS player and coach, and current leader of the U.S. men’s national team.
Nashville SC debuted Saturday night at Nissan Stadium, losing 2-1 to Atlanta United. No one expects an expansion team to immediately challenge for a title, and the owners will be more than pleased this year with competitive games and crowds like the over 59,000 announced for the Saturday opener.
That a new stadium deal has been reached is another feather in the MLS cap, as they keenly wanted both Nashville in the league and all their franchises eventually playing in stadiums exclusively devoted to soccer. But whether MLS can meet these lofty expectations remains to be seen.
The overwhelming success of the women’s team in international competition hasn’t translated into a foothold for women’s professional soccer. Certainly some, if not most of that, is a reflection on the longtime problem women’s sports have had in America with coverage and gaining respect.
But it also speaks to the difficulty of soccer becoming an established part of the American pro sports culture. It’s unquestionably a fixture at the youth, high school and college levels, both boys and girls, men and women.
What has yet to be shown, and the challenge for MLS, is to make their regular season and championship quest resonate in the same fashion as the hunt for a Super Bowl, World Series, NBA or Stanley Cup title. Time will ultimately determine if they are successful.