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MLS healthy at age 18

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  March 4, 2013 03:05 PM

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There may have been no off-season moment worse for MLS fans, players, and coaches than when FIFA president Sepp Blatter said the league was weak and struggling to adapt to international soccer. But MLS, which kicked off its 18th season this past weekend, doesnít appear to be in dire straits as Blatter suggests.

Confident in the league he leads as commissioner, Don Garber proceeded to invite Blatter to come see MLSís progress for himself. But Blatter isnít MLSís chief concern. MLS should be concerned by the fact that there are more people like Blatter who criticize the evolving league for its shortcomings than those who sing its praises.

Those who back MLS arenít spewing propaganda or falsely advertising. MLS ranks eighth in the world in professional soccer attendance, averaging 18,807 spectators per game. Talented players from soccer nations in Europe, Africa, South America, and the Far East are all starting to come to MLS at a younger age. Conversely, other leagues take MLS very seriously, as it is seen as a prime scouting and development ground.

The U.S. has made considerable progress on the soccer front despite fighting against something that other soccer nations donít have to worry about: a very basic soccer culture. Itís one of the few sports America doesnít dominate. Itís also a sport that doesnít have its foot in the door like baseball, American football, hockey, and basketball. And compared to European leagues that have been around for decades, MLS is still a teenager at soccerís dinner table. Blatter and his fellow critics should also ask themselves what the Premier League, Serie A, and Bundesliga looked like at age 18 compared to today. They should also ask themselves if soccer would survive in Europe if it had to compete the same way MLS does in the American sports market.

The answer would probably be yes, but to a certain degree. The idea of soccer as an international language would be more of a dream than a reality. Just look at basketball in Italy, which is in a similar position to soccer in America. The Italian league has the second-highest professional basketball attendance in Europe (3,859) and is reasonably competitive, but is still in the shadow of Italian soccer.

MLS has done well with a steep challenge. MLS will probably never become more popular than MLB or NFL, just as basketball will never be on par with the Serie A in Italy, though it might become the fifth closely-followed league.

The best current argument against MLSís success is its dreadful television ratings. MLS soccer has a .3 rating despite the fact that all league games are televised either locally or nationally. But American television ratings of international soccer, U.S. national team, and World Cup are soaring. That means that there are a large number of soccer fans that MLS can convert.

But after MLSí opening weekend, which averaged 19,411 in attendance, itís clear that progress is continuing. More success from the U.S. national team in major tournaments would raise MLSí numbers even more, though the league and its 19 teams appear to be evolving and learning the international game independently.

MLS teams now have an identity. Healthy attendance numbers arenít only figures on a chart or filled seats, but a packed house in the Pacific Northwest, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Toronto, Vancouver, and DC where the atmosphere is intense and the chanting never stops. Eighteen of the 19 teams have jersey sponsorsóa must for any professional team in the world. And the league is setting a trend by investing in urban, soccer-only stadiums. Fourteen of the 19 teams have stadiums that are designed just for soccer and have had such success with their new homes that team representatives from leagues around the world are taking notes on what MLS does.

The league has considerable growing to do in regards to skill on the field, finances, and international acclaim. But Garber has projected that the league will be as strong as the English Premier League by 2022. That doesnít mean that the U.S. will house the next Barcelona or Manchester United in less than 10 years, but it does mean that America could have a top soccer league in every sense of the word. And with time, the number of critics in the Blatter camp will decrease.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About Corner Kicks: Julian Cardillo offers insight and analysis about the New England Revolution as well as European and international soccer.

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