Columnists, Sports

A Fan’s Perspective: Could MLS be as popular as European soccer?

With the 19th Major League Soccer Cup set to kick off Sunday, MLS has turned into one of the top professional soccer leagues in the world. Although the competitive factor may not be as high as European leagues, interest is starting to reach comparable levels.

MLS match ratings increased from last season, averaging 240,000 viewers per game on ESPN and 141,000 on NBC Sports, according to Sports Media Watch. These averages are up 9 percent and 26 percent from last season, respectively.

Attendance at games has also been up. For example, the New England Revolution, whose highest postseason attendance prior to 2014 was 19,018, drew an audience of 32,698 fans to the second leg of the Eastern Conference Final against the New York Red Bulls on Saturday.

With attendance and viewership on the rise, the question remains whether the MLS could potentially be as popular as European soccer. It certainly is likely, but it might be awhile.

What will it take then?

For starters, the quality of players must increase.

In past seasons, big names such as David Beckham, Thierry Henry and Clint Dempsey have signed contracts with MLS teams. Next season, the league will be expanding, adding two new teams: Orlando City SC and New York City FC.

These two teams have already made headway with OCSC signing Brazilian star Kaká and NYCFC landing former Chelsea FC star and England National Team member Frank Lampard, along with former FC Barcelona and Spain National Team mainstay David Villa.

As many notable players flock to MLS, others seek to leave for the greener pastures of Europe. U.S. international DeAndre Yedlin, who made a name for himself at this summer’s FIFA World Cup, has signed a lucrative deal with London club Tottenham Hotspur.

U.S. Men’s National Team Manager Jürgen Klinsmann has expressed his displeasure with MLS and U.S. developmental systems. He voiced his concern when USMNT player Michael Bradley moved from AS Roma in Italy to MLS club Toronto FC.

His fear became apparent in the World Cup where Bradley, who was considered the top American player four years earlier, did not play to the same level as expected. Klinsmann’s discontent with U.S. Soccer’s development programs can be seen through his addition of foreign-born Americans, such as Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, Mix Diskerud, Aron Jóhannsson and most recently, 19-year-old Julian Green.

This dissatisfaction with MLS explains how the quality of players is much lower than European leagues because of a flawed developmental system. However, despite this problem, foreign players continue to express a desire to play in MLS.

With new domestic and international talents pouring into the league every year, attendance and fan interest have both increased. European fans are most enthusiastic about their teams, garnering fan sections for ultras and massive tifos, which are large-scale demonstrations of fanhood. MLS clubs have always had ultras and fans, but only recently have tifos come into play. During the New England Revolution playoff run, fans have unleashed tifos before kickoff of their home games, including a “Game of Thrones”-inspired banner.

So will the MLS ever be as popular as the top-flight leagues in Europe?

At the rate the MLS is growing and expanding, the popularity will only increase along with the league. As fan bases across the league grow, the publicity each team and MLS itself will receive will grow too.

And will MLS also be competitive with European leagues?

The only way that can happen is if the developmental system improves. One way to do this is to implement a relegation system. In every European league, the two to four worst teams at the end of the season are relegated to the division below, and the top teams in the second division get promoted. This could help make the league more competitive and allow teams to make their developmental programs more stringent.

Relegation and better training programs won’t necessarily allow the MLS champion to defeat the champion of the Barclays Premier League in England. However, if a match were held between the two, the MLS champion would certainly make it a competitive contest. What may once have been a six-goal rout could become a competitive fixture separated by just a goal in either team’s favor. With time and increased exposure, the MLS should continue to make the progressions necessary to become a true powerhouse.

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