Could the soccer World Cup return to the US? It might, as Major League Soccer continues to boom, says Gary Jordan
MLS has come a long way since its inception back in 1995, now in its biggest ever season in terms of the number of teams competing, it is very much part of the world soccer community and can boast a very competitive league attracting some of the biggest stars from across the globe.
Born out of a promise to build and establish a professional league as part of the successful 1988 bid to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup, the first full MLS season comprised ten pioneering teams. Now that number has doubled as soccer-loving Americans can't get enough of the planet's most played game. It hasn't all been plain sailing to get to this point, the first few years the attendances declined and more than $350m was lost in the eight years leading up to 2004.
Just before then though was the emerging play of the National team and they unexpectedly reached the quarter–finals of the 2002 World Cup and ever since then have always been a team to watch in major tournaments for their exciting play and never say die attitude to the game.
The influx of overseas players was clearly rubbing off onto the younger home grown players and with it the MLS come out of its own shadow to become what it is today. Expansion teams cropped up in Toronto, Seattle, San Jose, New York, Vancouver, Portland and Montreal. The league enjoyed a first in 2011 when the average attendance of all games was higher than that of the average in the NBA and NHL, at 17,872.
Further changes are planned as expansion teams are due in Atlanta and Los Angeles, the latter to formerly take the place of the folded Chivas franchise. In 2015 the numbers reached twenty when Orlando and a second New York team started play, but before a ball was kicked there was some business off the field to deal with.
Kickoff to this seasons play was in jeopardy due to a threatened players strike over a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. However just three days before the first game was due, meetings in Washington DC between the players union and MLS officials averted any strike action when a new five year deal was agreed. The CBA is very important for player's futures and realising this deal had to be set otherwise a strike would have put a big dent in the MLS going forward.
In the agreement were some interesting details. Players over 28 years of age and out of contract would become free agents of they had served eight years in the league. Also the minimum salary would rise to $60,000 from the previous deal set at $36,500 – although the paying minimum wage had been generally higher over the past season.
One of the new teams this year has an intriguing mix. You wouldn't normally associate soccer with baseball but this marrying of the two has created New York City FC, The partnership is between Manchester City of the English Premier League and the New York Yankees, one of the leading brands in all of sport. NYCFC, as they have quickly become known, have adopted the sky blue strip of their soccer sisters from across the Atlantic, and will play their games at Yankee Stadium, with plans to build a new stadium by 2018. The price of this sporting marriage was the small sum of $100m but in a thriving area of New York – with its sport crazy fans – it seems a small price to pay and will no doubt be a great investment down the line.
Can the team be competitive early? Well first indications are that they will be. Having won their opening home game against a long standing franchise New England Revolution, they looked well disciplined and not out of place at all. Boasting former World Cup winner from Spain, striker David Villa scored one and assisted the other in that first home win in front of 43,057 raucous fans. With former England International and Chelsea FC legend Frank Lampard (currently playing for Manchester City) due to join at the end of the English season, they could be the surprise package when the end-of-season awards are handed out.
The MLS is thriving and the future looks very bright. The promise made almost 30 years ago has been fulfilled, and it wouldn't be a surprise if the World Cup makes a return to the USA in the next decade such is the passion for the sport.