The World Cup is coming to a close, and for some less creative souls, so is soccer in the U.S. Of course, this isn’t true. The game thrives on a year-round basis in this country, you just have to know where to look. There are bars in every major city where you can walk in on a Saturday morning in the fall and find crowds gathered for the Premier League. But these are small signs, crumbs in the American soccer landscape. You want soccer in this country? Why not look at the stadiums that are packing in 19,000 fans every week for Major League Soccer? It’s time to stop passing over the obvious. No, the soccer on display is not of the highest quality. But allow me to evangelize, and convince you to start following MLS.
The USMNT of Today
Nine different MLS players made appearances for the USMNT in Brazil, with seven of those getting starts. Both of those figures are the largest since 1998. It was a reflection on the fledgling league when the U.S. finished last at the World Cup in ’98, and it says something about the league that a team so reliant on MLS talent escaped their group this summer. In particular, Seattle’s Clint Dempsey had two goals, and 20-year-old DeAndre Yedlin earned himself a lot of attention with his performance. Kyle Beckerman served as an anchor for the side during the group stage, and Graham Zusi had two assists. America’s best are largely playing in America, not out of charity but becuse the league is good enough for them.
For the foreseeable future, there will be Americans in Europe. Jozy Altidore plays in England, and despite poor performance with Sunderland, that is good for him. Yedlin probably won’t be on this side of the Atlantic in 2015. But Dempsey and Michael Bradley have shown that the league is more than an afterthought, and even Frankfurt-born Jermaine Jones is looking at joining the league. More than a home for established American stars, offers for Yedlin and Matt Besler show that MLS has the ability to produce talent.
The USMNT of Tomorrow
If DeAndre Yedlin stays healthy, there’s no reason to think that he won’t be representing his country for at least the next decade. He is the first MLS homegrown player to go to a World Cup, but he almost certainly won’t be the last. The homegrown player rule has also produced Erik Palmer-Brown, a 17-year-old defender so talented that Juventus offered $1 million for him. Wil Trapp and Shane O’Neill have become regular starters for their MLS sides, and should be called into the national team sooner rather than later. New England’s Diego Fagundez won’t be eligible to play for the USMNT for another year or two, but at 19 he already has more goals than any other teenager in MLS history.
As mentioned earlier, MLS is not the best soccer in the world. The largest payroll in the league is a fracton of the smallest payroll in the Premier League, and that has the effects you would expect on the field. But the Premier League is dominated by a small subset of its teams. You’re resigning yourself to years of misery should you adopt a team below Tottenham on the table. (Or, Tottenham). The same is not true of MLS. The restrictive salary cap and the playoffs format mean that just about every team has a chance at lifting MLS Cup. Year-in, year-out, there will be surprises and the league will be competitive to the very last day, and you can’t guarantee that in the big leagues of Europe.
In many ways, MLS is a work in progress. The league we see today isn’t even the league we’ll see next year. Five more teams will join the league before the decade ends, including two next year. While the fear might be about diminished quality, Orlando City and New York City FC have already brought Kaka and David Villa in as designated players. The new television deal that goes into effect next year triples the amount of money being given to the league. The salary cap will not triple, but it should grow, and it shouldn’t take a labor stoppage to ensure that. Attendance is on the rise, new stadiums are being built, and more talent is on the way. The future is bright for MLS.
But attendance doesn’t rise in a vacuum. New fans have to come from somewhere. I am writing this to you, American who enjoyed the World Cup but doesn’t usually watch soccer. Watch the MLS. Support the league and the game. I don’t think you’ll regret that decision.