Major League Soccer not there yet, but it's on the way to global legitimacy
On Friday, Major League Soccer's new season kicked off. It felt like a seismic campaign for what we still think of -- back in the old world -- as a newcomer to world football. Not just because the league is now 20 years young, but because it was welcoming two new teams, New York City and Orlando City, and a host of new stars, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, David Villa and Kaka among them. Even across the Atlantic, there was a sense that something was happening in the United States, that football was finally conquering what has long been seen as its final frontier.
It seemed, then, a fitting time for a British newspaper to dispatch a reporter to New York and take the temperature of the game in the city and in the country as a whole, to ask not just how New York City FC were put together but whether they were welcome in one of the world's most intense sporting landscapes and whether MLS can ever fulfil its ambition to be one of the best leagues in the world.
What I found was, to some extent, what I was expecting. By accident rather than by design, I have spent much of the last two World Cups traipsing around after the U.S. national team. I saw all of their games in South Africa and all but one in Brazil. What struck me (especially last summer) was the fans; they sent more than any other country, bar the hosts, and their fervour was eye-catching.
That was enough to convince me that the old question -- when will America learn to love football? -- was now redundant. Twenty-two million watched Jurgen Klinsmann's team play Portugal in Brazil. That is twice as many people as there are in Portugal.
The U.S. has, at the last count, around 70 million inhabitants who are interested in the sport. That may not be a majority but that should not be the barometer of whether a country likes football or not; if it was, Britain would not count -- only 20.6 million watched the World Cup final here, less than a third of the UK's 64.1 million population. If you're not watching the World Cup final, you probably don't count as a football fan.
To travel to New York and find countless bars showing Premier League games, then, or to see Real Madrid and Barcelona shirts as I walked around Tribeca and Williamsburg was not a surprise. I knew America had fallen for the game.
I also knew that European football in particular was what was popular. I knew a welter of websites (like this one, for example) and magazines have sprung up in recent years to cater for that taste. I knew that just as basketball fans in Europe will watch the NBA, soccer fans in the States had identified the highest form of the game and had chosen to follow it. I knew that sport was a globalised marketplace, and that it can be difficult for local products to thrive.
But then there were the things I did not know. The best thing about sports journalism is that, often, it is not really about sport at all: the game becomes a prism through which you can see other processes at work. So it is with the story of football in the U.S., which is not really a story about football but one of culture, of technology and society.
MLS was launched in 1995, right at the dawn of the digital age. This meant that, as Jeff Agoos (an MLS executive and a former U.S. national team player) told me, it was born at a time when the US was rapidly becoming "part of the global conversation." That made it easy for fans to follow European or Latin American football, and it offered the nascent league a double-edged sword: far more interest in the sport they were trying to push, but also far more competition for their attention. That led, in turn, to what as an outsider seems the most fascinating sociological aspect of football in the States.
In Europe, liking football is an aspect of mainstream masculine culture. To be different -- to convey the idea that you eschew what is expected of you, that you are uniquely discerning in your interests -- it is necessary to express your disdain for football. Liking football is at odds with the fads and fashions of the posing hipster and the sneering chatterati.
The opposite is true in the States. There was long a feeling that soccer was somehow un-American -- witness Ann Coulter's attack on the sport being a sign of "moral decay" as World Cup fever took hold last summer -- which led, in turn, to it being imbued with a sort of counter-culture cool. Football, in New York and I would guess in the States as a whole, is young and urban and aspirational. It is Europhile and outward-looking. It is worldly, completely opposed to the world of soccer moms and minivans to which it was supposed to appeal 20 years ago.
Discovery, though, does not end with the gathering of facts and opinions and details. It continues right through the process of publication. I went to New York to find things out and relay them to an audience in Britain. That, in itself, can be revelatory. This is where it comes in handy to remember the journey, because the reaction of an Old World audience to the story of football in the new was intriguing, too.
It has long been a source of irritation in Europe that the U.S. did not care much for football. Convincing America to like football, like convincing America to like British music or films, was for a long time seen as a matter of national pride.
Yet there's something odd about it: now that America does like football, and in huge numbers, there is no sense of joy. There is only a slightly embittered feeling that they don't do it properly (they have playoffs and salary caps, the fools!) and a fairly widespread desire to suggest that it is all fake, plastic and doomed to fail.
MLS has been dismissed (by some, not all) as a retirement home, a never-going-to-be league where has-beens play out their days with wannabes. The standard is low, we say, and attendances are not great. It will never be a rival to any of the leagues in Europe. We are sure of that. Its various setbacks are reported with a degree of glee: the Lampard farrago, David Beckham's problems in Miami, the recent threat of a player strike, the fact that Bradley Wright-Phillips could be considered one of the biggest stars. All of these ideas feed into the idea that MLS is fighting a losing battle and America will never quite get the best of Europe, or Africa, or even Asia.
All of this jars with me. Not just because there are a lot of good people with a lot of good ideas working on growing the sport. Not just because it is redolent of a certain amount of good old-fashioned European anti-Americanism. And not just because it is my one avowed belief about football that anyone who likes the sport should want it to do as well as possible anywhere, rather than concentrating power with their team or in their country.
It jars, largely, because people forget the journeys they have been on themselves. There was a time not that long ago when the major European clubs sneered at the Premier League. They thought it was a retirement home. They found its tactical naivety astounding. The very best players laughed at the very idea of going there in the prime of their careers. It was a lucrative retirement home. It was seen, in short, roughly as MLS is seen now. But it changed, and it changed fast.
That is not to say MLS is about to overtake the Premier League. There are issues: the salary cap and single-entity model, as the league remind you, give it a competitive balance that none of the European leagues can match. Pretty much anyone can believe they might win the title this season; only a handful of clubs can say that in Europe.
Yet the very same structures serve to limit MLS's growth: with just three designated players and a limited salary cap, it is hard to build a truly competitive squad. With most of any transfer fee kept by the league, there is no incentive to develop youth players. With so much revenue shared, it is hard to see either how investors make their money back or why they would try to make their clubs anything other than as good as everyone else. The system fails to encourage excellence.
Just as importantly, MLS cannot offer Champions League football, and it does not offer the tradition or the history that European leagues do. To players hoping to test their mettle against the best in the world, hoping to fulfil childhood dreams, Real Madrid remains the aim, not Real Salt Lake.
There is a but. MLS has advantages that go some way to counteracting all of that. Players can go to the U.S. knowing they will be paid regularly; that is not true in a host of European leagues. There are a huge number of players locked out of the Champions League who may well see New York or Los Angeles or Chicago as a rather nicer place to earn their keep than Sunderland or Rennes or Mainz. There is also the added benefit, if they stay long enough, of U.S. citizenship. To many players from across the world, that could prove to be a powerful lure.
MLS and commissioner Don Garber have a stated aim of being one of the best leagues in the world by 2022. It is not there yet. There is a lot of work to be done, and difficult choices to be made. It is, though, on its journey. This is the difficult bit: the traffic jam, the holding pattern, the endless train ride.
It is a journey other leagues have been on, too. They made it to their destination and forgot all about how long it took them to get there. That is why they dismiss the credentials of their new rival. Sometimes, though, it is best not to forget. It is best to remember.
Rory Smith is a columnist for ESPN FC and The Times. Follow him on Twitter @RorySmithTimes.