In 2002, Major League Soccer was a joke. They had just abandoned the entire East-West concept in the All-Star game, deciding to have the U.S. Men’s National Team play against the rest of the All-Stars in hopes of generating excitement. The overall gate attendance was at an all-time low. The reputation of the league was awful, especially after the 1998 FIFA World Cup in which the United States finished dead last.
It was embarrassment not only to the country that mostly didn’t care that they were there, but to the league that housed most of its players.
But in 2002, something happened. The U.S. Men’s National Team went to the World Cup again, but this time made history as they defeated international heavyweight Portugal and slipped into the second round by one point, making it out of the first round for the first time in history.
The squad would go on to stun Mexico in the second round before falling to Germany in an epic quarter-final contest that saw a firecracker of a header from Michael Ballack be the difference.
It may be a complete coincidence, but in every single season that has followed this monumental sporting achievement, the overall gate attendance has gone up for Major League Soccer. Every single season.
It was the turning point that the league needed; not for an instant fix that was going to answer all of their prayers, but to simply get the league turning in a positive direction.
Another thing that happened was the implementation of a designated opponent for the All-Star team to play. It brought the players from the entire league into a situation that was unique to even the American fan who was used to seeing basketball and baseball All-Star games, where the league was pitted against itself by East vs. West or American League vs. National League.
Over the past ten seasons, the MLS has grown by leaps and bounds. The signing of David Beckham in January of 2007 was without question the single biggest event in popularizing the sport that many Americans were coming to enjoy. Seeing top world clubs for the All-Star game, as well as various friendlies helped generate incredible buzz and fan bases.
Today, the MLS is enjoying double the overall fans from 2002, and the numbers are showing it’s not because of Beckham anymore. In 2011, the Seattle Sounders had an average attendance of 38,496. Proper expansion has led to packed stadiums that are suddenly showing a side of American soccer that had never been seen before. Soccer-specific stadiums aren’t just a dream anymore, they’re the standard around the league.
After suffering from laughable attendance figures for years, Sporting Kansas City is now a model for how a small-market team can succeed. They have gone from having the worst in attendance for eight overall seasons in MLS, to packing out their new Livestrong Sporting Park every game, trailing the Kansas City Royals’ average attendance by a slim margin.
What is happening right now in the MLS could not have been predicted by anyone ten years ago. No way, no how. If you were to tell someone in 2002 that David Beckham would be playing in the MLS, they would just flat out not believe you, soccer fan or not.
What does this mean for the next ten years? Is it possible that the limitations we currently have on the league in our minds could be dead wrong? Is it possible that in ten seasons, the MLS could be on par with Europe?
It seems incredibly far-fetched now.
Despite the fact many Americans are excited that “top talent” is coming in players like Thiery Henry, the league is still viewed overall as a place for older players who are past their prime…along with the American talent of course. But as the demand for players goes up along with the rapidly growing fan bases, and the money is coming in to help entice top players into signing, there’s no way it can be said the next ten years won’t yield something unexpected.