Football in the US is having a moment, but they’ve still got a lot to learn
The new season of MLS kicked off this past weekend, with all the fanfare that you might expect from the nation that knows how to make sport into entertainment better than any other. However, they've clearly still got a lot to learn.
The global football community is heavily invested in the success of football in the US; it is after all the second biggest spending power on the planet. While still only the fifth biggest sport in the US, ‘soccer’ is undoubtedly growing. It's long been seen as a crucial expansion area for football, and it's starting to look like they might just succeed. More teams are being added to the league and teams are selling tickets at an ever increasing rate. It is also is in position to benefit from perceived declines from some of its US sport rivals. The NFL continues to struggle with a concussion crisis, and it certainly seems that parents are moving towards encouraging their kids to play safer sports. Football already has a base of grassroots popularity in the States and could benefit as a result of the NFL’s losses.
The MLS still suffers from the perception that it is just a retirement home for ageing players from Europe’s top leagues. Certainly, more big names past their peak continue to make the switch, but gradually players still in their prime are beginning to sneak in (see Sebastian Giovinco as a prime example). Just as notably, Patrick Vieira, seen as a rising managerial talent, is now plying his trade in the MLS. With more teams and more money, the signs are good for the growth of the league.
The salaries are growing, the names are getting bigger, and undoubtedly the football is getting more entertaining. But the US still has a lot to learn about what makes ‘soccer’ so special.
This week, Charlie Stillitano from US sports network Relevent Sports spoke out about the potential for Leicester making it into the Champions League. His opinion was that the Champions League ‘did not need the likes of Leicester’. His point being that Leicester weren't of global relevance and therefore didn't have the right to be at Europe’s top table, something he claimed would never happen in the US.
I've often praised the US sports model for the parity that the draft system encourages. But in reality, there is no relegation or promotion and when it gets to business end of the season, it is the same well run and well supported teams that regularly appear. The US is all about the American dream and making it to the big time, but there isn't even a third division that a team could get promoted from to match the Leicester City story. More important to them is keeping big, popular teams at the top to keep the collective earning power of the league as high as possible.
It must be said; so far this Premier League season is a glorious aberration. In reality the Premier League has been painfully predictable in previous years. This season the sanctity of the top four has been broken, and it serves as a glorious throwback to how football used to be.
US football goes from strength to strength, but full of ageing stars, and with no relegation and promotion, fans are yet to truly appreciate just how magical the beautiful game can be. It seems unlikely they’ll be getting promotion or relegation any time soon. For now US fans will have to look across the pond for true football magic, even if they don’t appreciate just how entertaining it is.