Quick: name the third most popular team sport in the United States. If you guessed soccer, you would be correct! It ranks behind only baseball and basketball in terms of participation figures. Much of that growth is in the youth ranks, which counts over three million participants in the United States, up nearly 90% from 1990. That widespread popularity is starting to show up in Major League Soccer’s (MLS) attendance numbers. In 2016 MLS averaged 21,692 fans per game, ahead of both the NBA and the NHL.
The rise in MLS’s popularity has arguably coincided with a rise in the quality of play. Once derided by fans of other leagues, MLS is starting to establish a reputation among players and fans of the game. Not only the home for the majority of United States’ players, MLS has attracted top European and South American stars like David Villa, Didier Drogba, Sebastian Giovinco, Robbie Keane, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Kaká, Pirlo, Thierry Henry, and (of course) David Beckham. Add in top American talent like Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, and Clint Dempsey, and you end up with a league riddled with talented stars. Perhaps the most famous American star, Landon Donovan, spent the majority of his career playing in MLS.
The league is growing its number of franchises too. In 2017, Minnesota United FC and Atlanta United FC opened their doors to bring MLS to twenty-two teams. In fact, new teams joined MLS in all but two seasons since 2005. As MLS expands into new markets, it will continue to reach new fans, further fueling its growth.
A critical and underappreciated component of MLS’s success is the teams’ youth academies. For MLS to be recognized as truly elite, it needs to develop players, not just sign them from other top leagues. MLS has recognized this fact by incentivizing teams with its Homegrown Player Rule. This rule allows an MLS to directly sign a player from its youth academy instead of going through allocation processes. In addition, homegrown players do not count against a team’s salary cap. These rules give teams major incentives to invest in their academy programs. Some of the most well-known players to develop through this program include Andy Najar, DeAndre Yedlin, Bill Hamid, Kellyn Acosta, and Marco Farfan.
So with new teams joining the league, new fans attending the games in large numbers, increasing numbers of young talent graduating through the youth academies, and increasing numbers of stars seeing MLS as a viable option to continue and further their career, what’s the next step for MLS? MLS has stated that it wants to be one of the top leagues in the world, and the track it’s on has the league pointed in the right direction. The face of soccer in the US will arguably always be its Men’s National Team (USMNT). Although the composition of the USMNT ebbs and flows with each new camp and round of call-ups, MLS players have always been a significant portion of the team in recent years. In fact, one could argue that the future success of the USMNT is intrinsically linked to the success of MLS. For even if the most talented members of the USMNT continue to ply their trade in Europe (e.g., Christian Pulisic, Bobby Wood, Fabian Johnson), MLS will be relied upon to provide depth to the squad.
In conclusion, soccer has an incredibly bright future in the United States, and MLS is both a catalyst and beneficiary of this. Although many Americans still only pay attention to soccer during the World Cup, that is starting to change as MLS expands into more cities and increasing numbers of people can call a professional team their own. This in turn fuels participation, which fuels player development, which fuels quality of play, which fuels interest in soccer, which fuels participation, etc. For the American soccer lover, it’s a beautifully positive feedback loop. All in all, it’s a wonderful time to be a soccer fan in the United States, and it’s only going to get better.