The Reviews Are In: MLS Not Terrible

A couple weeks ago, I predicted Orlando’s first game would be a four-goal trouncing of New York City FC. Oops.

But the reason I said that is because I felt it was going to be the biggest inaugural match in MLS history. I think my general sensation was right, just a little misguided. It may be that it was the biggest weekend of matches on MLS history. Or day. I’ll settle for this: It was the biggest Sunday in MLS matchday history, and that includes all the times MLS Cup was played on a Sunday.

I have been, and always shall be, an unapologetic MLS fanboy. I shouldn’t, by definition, hedge against those feelings. I tend pessimistic about most things: my love life, my career, DC United, but I’m at least forever optimistic about MLS. Every sentence from here on out should be read with that in mind.

In business, one should always look to distinguish oneself. Maybe your technology isn’t as good as IBM’s, but if you do something they don’t, or you do something they do but on a smaller scale or cheaper, maybe you can make it.

By current economic projections, MLS won’t be eclipsing the top European leagues anytime soon. The CBA ensured that, but really anyone who’s looked at a calendar recently should have figured out that MLS wouldn’t be a top 5 league in the world by 2022.

So what was Garber playing at then? He’s been declaring since at least the end of the 2012 season that MLS was destined for such greatness by 2022. Maybe we should examine what being a top league actually means.

From a quality standpoint, it’s almost certain that won’t happen. I may disagree with Stefan Szymanski on many things, but I agree that for the most part in soccer, you do get what you pay for. It’s interesting that this narrative advanced so fast that Twellman asked it in his brief halftime interview of Garber. But it’s pretty clear that the Sounders won’t be fielding a roster comparable to Bayern’s within the next seven years, unless the incredibly unlikely and rash decision is made to abolish the single-entity system and allow an unencumbered free market.

Garber answered Twellman in an odd way. Cynics will say that he dodged and spun as usual. I say he conceded the point and pointed to other areas in which MLS could become among the top in the world. He essentially asked us to allow him to redefine what the word “top” meant.

He mentioned atmosphere. MLS is currently the tenth most attended soccer league in the world, based on per-game average. With Chivas gone and San Jose having moved to a suitable home, it’s not unreasonable to expect an average attendance in the 22k range. That would lift us above Liga MX, the Eredevisie, the Argentine League, and Ligue 1 into 6th. I wouldn’t be surprised if we jumped the Indian Super League coming off their inaugural year. After all, it took 15 years for MLS to get back to its inaugural average.

Build DC United Stadium, expand Sporting Park, admit Minnesota United and Sacramento, build NYCFC Stadium, and build the Revs’ Stadium, and you could have a league averaging over 25k by 2022, which would top Serie A and nudge against La Liga.

That, at least, is one measure, one potential definition of what it could mean to be a top league.

Another are the academies, the spending on which has risen $10 million in just a couple of years and isn’t slowing down. There’s not a lot to say here that isn’t well covered by things like Top Drawer Soccer and the like, but the gist is that Country Big, People Many, Athletes Strong and Fast, Make Soccer Important and Good.

But attendance and academies aren’t everything. TV deals are important.

I whined and bitched with everyone else when FOX got the rights previously held by NBC. I liked NBC, I thought they were doing a good job. I was not excited about Gus Johnson and Eric Wynalda calling MLS games for the next eight years.

But FOX did alright! I mean, the camera work at Sporting Park could have been a little better but oh well. JP Dellacamera is a god damn national treasure. John Strong is good too. Redditors like Alexi Lalas a lot more than Twitter people, which tells me the Lalas hate out there is probably a little unreasonable.

I’d say the Soccer Sunday thing worked. People kind of liked it:


And that’s not all:


These were after two 1-1 games, one of which was something of a sloppy affair between two games playing their first meaningful match. Hold on, one more:


Never before had an MLS Opening Weekend drawn such rave reviews and now that the broadcasters have invested significantly, the production value, and indeed from early returns the ratings, have already improved and will only get better.

One phenomenon was kind of unexpected. News passed about a week ago that Sky Sports and Eurosport would be airing MLS overseas. I didn’t think much of it because frankly I didn’t think it would mean much. Yet so many of these posts were English people discovering MLS for the first time, and quite enjoying it!

It makes sense. Imagine that the same four teams, the New England Patriots, the New York Giants, the Green Bay Packers, and the Denver Broncos, contested the Super Bowl almost every year. Maybe the Seattle Seahawks are good enough to upset both Green Bay and New York one year to make it. Maybe the Jacksonville Jaguars get bought by a very rich guy, who pours a lot of money into the team and wins the Super Bowl at the death.

Americans would probably still be interested in the NFL, because it’s still our favorite sport and it’s played at the highest level.

But imagine a league propped up in England, a small upstart league featuring some players who weren’t yet good enough to play in the NFL or had just passed their prime, and even a few stars that been lured away by a higher payday. “But wait we already rejected NFL Europe and so did they” yes that’s true but that was in the parity-driven awesome NFL world in which we currently live, not this sadder new one where no one can win except for the Patriots, Packers, Broncos, and Giants.

I think, along with getting more involved with college football, Americans would at least be intrigued by this slightly lesser league that played its games in the morning.

It’s hard to conceptualize that kind of league because it just doesn’t happen here. But it’s reality over there. And now, a league of decent (not the best, but pretty good and probably better than it’s ever been, yes I still hold a torch for 1998) quality is accessible, where anyone (except Chicago) could win the title. Americans watch the Premier League for the quality. Britons might be watching MLS for the competition.

And that is how a slightly cheaper soccer league distinguishes itself in a packed global soccer market and potentially makes good on its top league promise, whatever the definition of that may be.

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