(WFI) As the global football focus turns towards the new season in Europe, those trying to champion the game on the other side of the pond can look back with real satisfaction on a sensational summer on and off the pitch.
Perhaps the biggest tonic came with word that the NBC Sports Group inked a three-year deal to televise 45 Major League Soccer games and four US national team fixtures per season, the rights to which were previously owned by the niche TV outlet, Fox Soccer Channel.
The move has been heralded as a great leap forward for the MLS by virtue of the fact that it offers vastly increased exposure to a mainstream audience with validation from one of the most venerable names in American sports broadcasting.
NBC’s investment was no doubt mooted long before the summer, but the spike in soccer interest among Americans during the women’s World Cup will certainly have endorsed the deal. Not least of all because America’s traditional “winner takes all” mentality gave way to a heroes welcome for the runners-up on their return to the States, suggesting a greater understanding of the game than in the past.
Soccer is a heavily nuanced sport and, especially on its biggest stages, there’s often something to be found between winning and losing – namely, honorable and valiant effort. Never before had America embraced that idea so warmly. And the fact that US fans could acknowledge their team’s endeavour, despite the outcome, was encouraging for those promoting a mercurial game to an audience that traditionally applauds results far more than good intentions.
That level of sympathy was not granted to the US men’s soccer team whose loss to Mexico in this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup final left many US fans bemoaning the team’s apparent lack of passion, talent and direction. But even that negative produced a positive when the solid but journeyman coach of the US team, Bob Bradley, was replaced at the helm by the world-renowned Jurgen Klinsmann.
Klinsmann appointment underlines US Soccer’s aspirations
The appointment of the former German World Cup-winning player, who also managed his country to the World Cup semi-finals in 2006, is proof that US soccer not only has high aspirations but is now capable of attracting the best personnel to help fulfill them.
There’s also the possibility that should Klinsmann blaze a successful trail other top foreign coaches may follow him, with resultant benefits to soccer in America as a whole.
Of course, it would be foolish to look on Klinsmann as a messiah – been there, done that with David Beckham. And, to be fair, I believe even the most casual of American soccer fans is now more sophisticated than to look to a big-name foreign import as the sole arbiter of the league’s success. Good teams make a league and good players make a team, and they don’t need to be superstars. That’s why the LA Galaxy’s acquisition of Robbie Keane as their latest designated player is such a great bit of summer business.
By no stretch of the imagination is the former Tottenham forward a glamour signing, even though he’s on glamorous wages of $6 million over two years. What the
Galaxy is paying for is a proven striker who, despite a lean spell, was still capable of doing a job in England’s top flight. Instead, he opted for the US where, even at the age of 31, he’ll be sharp and canny enough to make a real impact.
Granted, Tom Cruise won’t be calling him up for tickets. But, what he lacks in glitz, Keano will make up for in guts and goals, and that will be far more beneficial to the team’s development than any celebrity endorsement.
Another notable name who put pen to MLS paper this summer was Freddy Adu.
The prodigal son returned from his character-building reality check in Europe to rejoin the MLS with the Philadelphia Union. Stronger, more astute, and certainly humbler than he was as the “next Pele” back in his teenage millionaire days with D.C United and Real Salt Lake, Freddie’s second coming could be perfectly timed, with the league on the rise and his fallen star doing likewise, as evidenced in a couple of eye-catching performances for the USA in the Gold Cup.
USA: an attractive and viable football market
That tournament came in the midst of a season in which attendances at MLS games showed a more than 6% increase at the All-Star break compared with the same time last season. The average gate of 17,417 put the MLS clubs on a par with a mid-table team in the Football League’s Championship, England’s second tier.
A capacity crowd of some 26,000 attended this year’s All-Star game against Manchester United, which was held at the Red Bull Arena in New Jersey and could have sold-out twice over.
Unfortunately, the MLS performance didn’t match the splendour of the soccer-specific stadium – one of 11 in the league at present – as the All-Stars lost 4-0. That was disappointing, but has to be put in context as the MLS was facing an in-form United side that’s arguably the second best team on the planet.
The best team on the planet, Barcelona, was also in the USA over the summer, joining United and a plethora of top European clubs which now regard the USA as a prime pre-season destination. The World Football Challenge, in which several of those teams competed, may be grandiosely named, but the fact that it had the clout to draw the likes of Barca, United, Juventus, Manchester City, Sporting Lisbon, and the eventual winners, Real Madrid, proves the USA is now globally regarded as an attractive and viable football market.
It’s been a great few months and no doubt MLS commissioner Don Garber is already plotting how to build on that success.
Of course there are plans to expand the league from its current 18-team roster, which may eventually see the return of America’s most famous soccer club ever, the New York Cosmos. And the commissioner is thinking big, quoted in a recent interview as saying his goal is to turn Major League Soccer into “one of the top leagues in the world by 2022″.
That’s a lofty ambition, and perhaps a bit deluded given that by the end of the 2022 season the MLS will be only 29-years-old while some top flight leagues in Europe and South America already count their longevity in triple digits.
However, it’s a measure of the optimism building in American soccer circles that he can afford to make his dreams public.
Clearly there are still big challenges ahead. But, make no mistake, this was a super summer for soccer in the USA. The question now – will this be the catalyst that eventually turns the game in America from minor to major?
By INSIDER columnist Terry Baddoo
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