As the postseason of MLS creeps its way into the conference semifinals, I look back at a season full of upsets, comebacks and true heroic stories. Yet when I attempt to talk about all this excitement with fellow soccer lovers, no one understands, or frankly cares, about what MLS has to offer.
I am writing about this more confused than concerned. I do not understand how Americans can call themselves soccer fans if they don’t root for teams right in their backyard.
Before I get into why soccer lovers, and other sports enthusiasts alike, should be tuning into MLS, I’ll give a brief history lesson.
Major League Soccer was officially formed in 1995 and kicked off its first season in 1996 with ten teams from cities around the US and Canada. As years progressed, MLS did not grow in popularity like the organization had planned.
In fact, only recently did viewership of games dramatically increase. From the 2016-2017 seasons, there was a 40 percent increase in viewership of the league. This is partly due to the additions of teams and contracts with cable and streaming networks.
At the start of the league, there were only ten teams and that total has expanded to 23, with the plan of settling at 28 within the next couple of years. MLS is introducing new teams every year including David Beckham’s new Miami FC.
With the expansion of the league and its growth in popularity, here are five reasons to watch MLS.
1. Easy access
Over the past couple of years, MLS has seen an increase in viewership with contracts made with ESPN, FOX Sports and Univision TV. Not only has this allowed the games to be broadcasted on major networks, it gives viewers the option to live-stream the game right on their phones through the networks’ respective apps. The problem is, only games broadcasted on these channels could be viewed. Then a solution arose.
As of the beginning of this season, MLS made a major deal that allowed all MLS games to be streamed on ESPN+. This was a huge improvement that gave fans a chance to watch their favorite teams from anywhere, as long as they had a subscription. For only $5 a month, I am able to watch my favorite team, the Philadelphia Union, from my dorm room in Connecticut. The subscription to ESPN+ was certainly a game changer considering last year I had to FaceTime my sister and force her to turn on the game at home so I could cheer on my team.
Also, MLS is occasionally streamed live on Youtube and Facebook, instead of broadcasting networks.
Overall, MLS has made the efforts to reach bigger audiences. It is easily accessible through different means of media so there are no excuses why a soccer fan is not tuning into the exciting games.
Like mentioned, MLS has grown from 10 teams to 23 since its beginning, and it will reach a total of 28 in the near future. That means there will be 28 different cities around America and Canada that have soccer teams and furthermore, 28 areas of the countries that have access to hometown soccer teams.
The problem with being a fan of European soccer in America is that they will probably never see their favorite team play at home. It is the sad truth because it takes money and time to plan a vacation that brings you to another country in addition to planning around the schedule of the league.
Luckily, MLS have many teams from around the country and Canada where fans can easily go cheer on their team in person. As an added fact, the tickets do not cost nearly as much as football games and the seats are much closer to the field. It is a win-win in my opinion.
3. Experienced players
MLS has been called a ‘retirement league’ since the start of its existence. I can see where they get that from. Many big-name players have come to MLS teams from popular European clubs at an older age. That does not mean it is a problem. How awesome is it to watch David Villa, Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimović and Carlos Vela (just to name a few) tear it up on the field right in front of you? It is pretty amazing. And yes, I had the opportunity to see them all in person. The power of MLS, right?
The impact the stars of soccer have brought to MLS in both game play and viewership is astounding. Since the LA Galaxy acquired the 37-year-old self-proclaimed “god” Zlatan, they went from being worst team in the league to a strong contender for a playoff position. Zlatan scored 22 goals and had 10 assists in his 26 games in MLS. His presence changed the Galaxy, giving them hope towards the top team they once were.
Another newcomer this year that made a huge impact was former Manchester United player Wayne Rooney. Rooney, 33, joined DC United and took the team from being one of the last in the Eastern Conference, to being 4th place and earning a home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The English national team’s captain scored 12 goals and tallied 7 assists in his 20 games played for DC.
In addition, English international and MLS star David Beckham announced his new MLS team, Inter Miami FC, will begin playing in 2020. With Beckham the owner and president of the team, many believe his stardom (and big budget) will bring even more big names to MLS.
Recently, French national team superstar Antoine Griezmann announced his plan to move to the US to play for a MLS team when his contract is up with his current club Atletico Madrid in 2022. Until then, fans will have to settle for other talent until he arrives.
4. Young prodigies
Yeah, the big-name players are amazing to watch, but MLS is amazing for the young talent it produces. Many teams, like European clubs, have academy programs to teach boys the process to become what it takes to be a professional soccer player. Clubs like the Philadelphia Union, Real Salt Lake and New York Red Bulls are just a few of the teams who have produced major talent in young stars.
Tyler Adams is a 19-year-old New York Red Bulls Academy product that has played for the club’s first-team for the past two seasons in addition to starting for the US men’s national team. Adams played in 27 regular season games for the Red Bulls this season. Because of his success in MLS and for his country, he was wanted by many European teams. Next season, he will be playing for RB Leipzig, in the German Bundesliga. In addition, the Red Bulls Academy also produced Timothy Weah, a US national team player who is playing for PSG in France. PSG. Yes, this 18-year-old is playing alongside soccer star Neymar.
The Philadelphia Union currently have six homegrown players on their roster and tend to utilize them on the first team. Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie are two academy-product defenders who have made waves during the Union’s incredible 2018 season. Trusty, 20, was the only Union player to play every minute of the regular season. McKenzie, 19, started 18 of the 19 games he played. The two young players made a great impact for the team and proved why the reason MLS is so successful with academy programs.
MLS should be kept an eye on for not only attracting soccer stars, but for producing such young talent in its academy programs.
5. One of a kind
Many people believe MLS is a joke league, but to the players and fans? It’s not.
Sure, the stadiums are smaller, there are not as many people tuning in and the fame is not as crazy as some clubs, but why should it be considered a joke?
Didier Drogba, former Chelsea star and recently retired from soccer after playing for the Montreal Impact and Phoenix Rising (USL), compared the difficulty of the MLS to the English Premier League.
“It’s a different challenge [in the US]. People think it’s easy to play there,” Drogba told Reuters in an interview. “Believe me, it’s more difficult than playing in the Premier League because of the travel. It’s a growing league and I think it’s going to be one of the most important and decisive leagues in the world in a few years.”
People who play in both leagues or even just tune into them on the TV can see the differences between the leagues. Drogba mentioned the challenges the US poses and its potential, but a main factor is the possibility of an underdog.
Big leagues are often run by big clubs with big budgets who can afford all the best players. Seria A (Italy) is dominated by Juventus; La Liga (Spain) is run by Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid and Barcelona; and Bundesliga (Germany) is dictated by Bayern Munich and Dortmund.
MLS has its fair share of league dominators, but teams vary year-by-year which allows the underdogs to rise up and make a name for themselves.
Last year, Toronto FC dominated the league, winning 20 games and tallied 69 points to grant them the Supporters Shield, an award given to the team in MLS with the most points at the end of the regular season. Toronto FC went on to defeat the Seattle Sounders to win the 2017 MLS Cup. in this 2018 season, Toronto flipped and finished 9th out of 11 team in the East, and 19th overall.
MLS gives the underdog the chance to come out and fight for the Cup. Sporting Kansas City has been on a downhill streak since its MLS Cup win in 2013. They have competed in playoffs since but never made it past the first round. Now, they are a likely candidate to make it to the Cup to represent the West, and possibly win it all.
The difference between other leagues and MLS can go on and on but MLS is just as competitive and is no longer just a “retirement league” like it supposedly was in the past.
If you take away anything from reading this, give Major League Soccer a chance. It has riveting games, crazy rivalries and so much more to offer. It is an exciting, relatively new league that is just growing and growing.
The 2019 season kicks off in March so until then, watch the playoffs of 2018 and catch up on all things MLS!
*all statistics provided by MLSsoccer*