Major League Soccer has grown up a lot since 1996. But it may already have peaked in popularity.
Stop me if you have heard this before: soccer is the sport of the future here in the United States.
The sport has never been more popular in this country as millions of people across the nation play and watch. Then again, these very same things were said in the 70s, 80s and 90s as well — and yet soccer still sits on the outside looking in on mainstream sport in the United States.
Of course, that’s not to say that the sport hasn’t made significant strides in that time.
Just take a look at the transformation we have seen in Major League Soccer just within the last decade or so.
After 2001, MLS was a league on the decline. After some initial success soon after the league launched, interest had waned, crowds were down across the board and the league had just contracted the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion.
Now, you would have to say that the league is on solid footing.
There are currently 19 franchises in the league with a 20th coming to the New York area within the next several years. With only a couple of exceptions, these franchises are doing well financially and have devoted fans.
Soccer-specific stadiums are now littered all across the country. Supporter groups are popping up in those stadiums with increasing regularity. In places like Seattle and Portland, the game-day atmosphere rivals and even surpasses the atmosphere at some big European clubs.
But again, all of that has not been enough to get the league over the hump and into the mainstream. You can’t help but wonder if it will ever be able to get there.
The good news is that a league rising from relative obscurity to become a phenomenon in this country is not unprecedented. The NBA was in a bad spot back in the late-70s and early-80s. Rather than being shown live, NBA Finals games were being taped and shown late at night. Then along came Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and some guy named Michael Jordan and the rest is history.
But the fact of the matter is that the American sports landscape is pretty crowded. The NFL is king, college football isn’t too far behind and the NBA and MLB have their own followings, to be sure. When the average American sports fan has so much to choose from already, there might not be room for anything else.
The bigger problem, though, is that one can be a soccer fan in this country without having to be a fan of MLS.
We live in a world where it’s as easy to follow the English Premier League or the German Bundesliga as it is to follow MLS or any other domestic sports league.
If you asked 100 randomly-selected soccer fans in America to name their favorite club, I’m guessing a vast majority of them wouldn’t pick an MLS team. I think you would hear a lot of people say Manchester United, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich.
Worse yet, many of those fans would never even consider becoming a real fan of MLS because they refuse to watch an “inferior product.” And for MLS, that’s a problem.
The MLS has come a long way. The league that was known as little but a retirement league for fading international players has grown into a competitive league with plenty of talent to go around. But because the success of soccer in America and the success of the domestic league in America aren’t necessarily tied to each other, MLS may have come as far as it can.