Amid the hurly burly of March Madness, the heated races for playoff berths in the NBA and NHL and the imminent arrival of baseball, it’s no surprise the start of the MLS season was just a footnote in the U.S. sporting calendar. Ahead of the third weekend of fixtures, few in the U.S. will be nodding sagely about the rise of Real Salt Lake or the current struggles of perennially disappointing New York Red Bulls. Sixteen years after its founding, the best American showcase for the world’s most popular game is still a lightweight in an arena stubbornly dominated by indigenous bruisers.
But that obscures the fact that MLS has grown leaps and bounds. “I don’t think the league has ever been healthier,” says Sean Wheelock, a leading American soccer pundit for the BBC. This year, it welcomed the Montreal Impact, its 19th franchise (and the third in Canada.) The Impact’s Mar. 17 home opener drew nearly 60,000 to the city’s cavernous Olympic stadium, who sang and chanted — pulling “a pretty fair imitation of a European soccer crowd,” writes one Montreal sports columnist — while their team dominated in a 1-1 draw with the Chicago Fire.
On the pitch, the quality of play, while still lagging behind the top leagues in Latin America and Europe, has improved markedly. That’s not just because of the cast of high-profile international stars — say, LA’s David Beckham and Robbie Keane, and New York’s Thierry Henry — now plying their trade here, but a steady increase in the depth of talent across the country. In keeping with the strengths of American sporting culture, the fitness levels and athleticism one sees in an average MLS game (if not the sheer pace) is comparable to that of Europe’s best divisions. Moreover, the MLS has attracted a wealth of less-heralded foreign players who have boosted the competitiveness of the American game — see, for example, New York’s standout Estonian playmaker Joel Lindpere or Frank Songo’o, a Cameroonian international who left Spanish club Albacete for the Portland Timbers. “Some guys who were MLS All Stars in the 1990s,” says Wheelock, “would have a tough time even making the squad of a team now.”
But the MLS perhaps deserves more credit for its recent performance off the field. After a dip toward the end of the 1990s, attendances are up, with a majority of clubs playing in their own soccer specific stadia. Forsaking earlier attempts to market the sport to a wider pan-American audience, the league shifted gears, targeting real soccer fans. Long gone are the clocks that wind down (like in other American spots) rather than increasing towards soccer’s universal 90 minute mark; so too the awkward hockey-style shoot out that ended tied games, since it was thought Americans would never understand or appreciate the ambiguity of a draw. “When you go to a stadium, there’s none of the hoakiness there once was,” says Wheelock.
I remember schlepping to a barren Giants stadium in 1999 to watch a mediocre New York-New Jersey Metrostars team stumble along in front of a spattering of fans, the brunt of the atmosphere provided by music blasphemously blasted over loudspeakers during stretches of the game. At that time, the league wasn’t drawing in non-traditional soccer fans and the people who loved the sport (like me) were simply put off by its clownish, Americanized theatrics. Fast forward to a year ago: standing in the ‘singing’ section of the franchise’s tidy new stadium in Harrison, N.J., I could with one-eye closed convince myself that I was on the terraces of a ground in London or Buenos Aires.
The advent of the league in Canada has added a new dimension of intensity. Though the Canadian national team lags far behind its southern neighbor, the sport is more mainstream and arguably better followed in Canada, whose main cities are home to considerable immigrant diasporas from Europe and elsewhere. “There’s a closer tie to British culture. Soccer is perceived differently there,” says Wheelock. That translates into the sort of passion Toronto brought into the league in 2007; Montreal’s fans, who were already pretty rowdy before the team got upgraded from the lower level USL, could outdo their Ontario rivals.
Still, the MLS’s showcase for soccer fanaticism remains the Pacific Northwest, where three newish franchises — Seattle, Portland and Vancouver — boast some of its highest attendances and most passionate support. Seattle, which joined in 2009, led the way, playing to civic pride in a city that had lost its NBA team. The ownership group behind the Seattle Sounders, which also runs the NFL’s Seahawks, took the opportunity seriously, says Wheelock, “conducting grassroots marketing and targeting fans like I’ve never seen.” Regional ‘derbies’ against nearby Portland and Vancouver are already heated, noisy affairs, and developing the hallmarks of such clashes across the pond. A North American sports fan unaccustomed to soccer should take notice of these spectacles, advises Wheelock. “Watch the cities where the crowds really create a great atmosphere, get swept up in that and see that it’s unique — see how going to a 25,000 seater soccer stadium is an altogether different experience from going even to an NFL game at an 80,000 seater stadium.”