Thursday 19 March ~
Major League Soccer kicks off its 14th season today with a game between its newest team, Seattle Sounders FC, and one of its least successful, the New York Red Bulls. Both enter the campaign with the requisite optimism of any side yet to kick a meaningful ball. Seattle have sold an unprecedented 22,000 season tickets for their inaugural season, while New York, the much-derided football plaything of an Austrian energy drinks company, actually made it to the MLS Cup final for the first time last year, and will move into a smart new 25,000-seat stadium next. You can say what you like about the standard (and many Europeans do, without ever having actually watched a game) but every one of the league's 15 teams starts out, for better or worse, thinking they have a chance to become champions. No manager mutters the equivalent of: "A UEFA Cup place would be nice, but we’d settle for avoiding relegation."
All MLS previews begin, as above, by stating how many years that the league has survived. That number is important, because it denotes not just the league's comparative youth, but is also a testament to its staying power in the staggeringly crowded US sports market. Yet despite the odds, MLS is the most stable, viable professional soccer league the country has ever spawned, and looks well set for the next decade or two, even if the current recession puts the brakes on its ambitious plans to expand. It's frustrating that team salaries and player contracts, and much else besides, are managed centrally by a league whose practices border on total control, because this leads to a surplus of teams lacking in both character and style. A little like the US national side. But it has to be remembered that the United States is still a century or so behind the rest of the world in terms of development.
The irony of all this is that when the mainstream US sports media deign to pay any attention to soccer, it's usually to pose the question of whether the game will ever establish itself in the country. Gleefully, they look at a few attendance stats or the failure of David Beckham to turn MLS into the Premier League overnight, and claim that the answer is no. But they are in denial – the game has for at least a decade been established at grass-roots level, and is as much a part of suburban, middle-class life as tree-lined streets, golf bores and cell phone-addict moms driving SUVs. On evenings and weekends in spring and autumn there's barely a patch of free grass that's not hosting a game. Millions play it, but only thousands watch MLS. Give it a generation or two, though, and that will change if even only a minority of young players turn into adult fans.
Major League Soccer had been commendably patient in its development up until it sought the quick fix by signing David Beckham for the LA Galaxy two years ago. You can see why they were tempted, and those of us covering the US game wanted it to work as much as the league's fans and officials. But we were all duped by the polite and charming east Londoner who is good on crosses and the occasional free-kick, but who turned out to care much more about himself than his professed goal of growing the US game. The league still bravely claims that the move brought it unprecedented publicity and much extra income, while his club euphemistically labelled its farcical loan deal for the player with AC Milan "an innovative agreement". That’s the official line, but Beckham's welcome back to America halfway through this summer will see fans in a less forgiving mood. Brave Dave, though, says the booing won’t affect him. "I’ve had it all before," he told the BBC last week. "That side of it doesn’t bother me."
In fact nothing much bothers David except reaping more caps for England, a stepping-stone to his post-career marketing master plan as an aviation-fuel burning brand in the mould of Pelé, signing balls and pulling his eternally sterile smile as his features are flooded by flash bulbs. The league, meanwhile, needs to forget all about him and keep its head down for a while. It needs to stop caring what the condescending world beyond thinks about soccer in the States, and ignore its smug, inane detractors in the domestic media. Looking ahead, and in tandem with the US Soccer Federation, it must concentrate on developing and encouraging homegrown, dynamic players with flair and individuality who will eventually win it respect and new converts. It won't happen this season, and it won't happen next. But once the necessary structural and philosophical shifts in the US game come to pass, the country will eventually boast what Europeans secretly fear – a stronger, wealthier league and a consistently powerful US team. In the meantime, save your sneers. We're happy just to have, and even enjoy, a league of our own. Ian Plenderleith