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Elevating the MLS Internationally 

Photo courtesy Columbus Crew

Despite its relative success in elevating the game of soccer to one of the most popular sports in the United States today, the Major League Soccer (MLS) has yet to establish a name in the international scene.

The MLS has made tremendous strides since its establishment in 1993, but its popularity still pales in comparison to what has been achieved by the English Premier League (EPL) and other similar leagues in Europe.  

Football loving nations around the world – like China, Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam – have yet to embrace the sports from a country which insists on calling its brand of football as “soccer”, and refers to an entirely different sport as “American football”. This is also very evident in the sportsbooks activity – for example, football odds for Vietnamese fans are being updated regularly for most leagues, but the bettors remain hesitant when it comes to MLS.

In fairness though, the Major League Soccer (MLS) has struggled from virtual anonymity when it started 30 years ago, to a stable league that can now stand side by side, at least in its own turf, with the world’s long established football nations in Europe and Latin America.  

The league initially lost an estimated $350 million since its founding in 1993 to the early 2000s, and was on the verge of extinction. It managed to escape this when it was saved by fresh financing and timely reforms that attracted more teams and international stars to join the league.  

An unexpected quarter finals appearance by the US soccer team in the 2002 World Cup, through victories over Portugal and Mexico, then triggered an influx of events that turned the tide against the beleaguered league.  

Four months after the 2002 World Cup hosted by Japan, the MLS set an unprecedented record attendance of 61,316 fans as the Los Angeles Galaxy won the MLS Cup with a victory over home team New England Revolution at the Gillette Stadium in Massachusetts.

These events ignited a high pitch of patriotic and pecuniary fervor in the hearts of American sports patrons, and nudged them into infusing more dollars to resuscitate the beleaguered league. 

Under a new league leadership, the MLS embarked on new game-changing reforms to sustain the euphoria brought on by Team USA’s historic World Cup quarterfinals finish and the MLS’ record attendance.  

The reforms included moving out of the huge American gridiron and transferring to soccer-specific playing fields. In a span of five years, between 2003 and 2008, the league started and completed the construction of six new soccer stadiums for the use of the majority of the MLS teams.  

It was also during this period when more teams were added to the league, with Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA starting to play in 2005, followed by San Jose Earthquakes in 2006. The 2007 season provided more exciting developments for the MLS.  

Aside from the league’s expansion to Canada, with the inclusion of the Toronto FC in the roster of MLS teams, the year also ushered in the adoption of the “designated player rule,” the game exchanging act that opened the doors of the league to certified international football stars.

English right winger and former Manchester United legend David Beckham signed a five-year high-profile deal with LA Galaxy that paid immediate dividends for the team in particular and the league in general.  

With its prized acquisition, Galaxy pulled off a new five-year sponsorship deal with a nutrition company worth US$20 million and a large spike in gate receipts.   

Beckham set the stage for more world-renowned players to join the league in the coming years.  

Here’s a look back at some famous names that graced MLS games:

  • Thierry Henry, France
  • Wayne Rooney, UK
  • Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden
  • Kaka, Brazil
  • Andrea Pirlo, Italy
  • Didier Drogba, Ivory Coast
  • David Villa, Spain
  • Frank Lampard, UK
  • Bastian Schweinsteiger, Germany
  • Steven Gerrard, UK

Most of them were in the twilight of their playing careers when they joined the MLS, but they still mustered considerable crowd drawing power.  

While they have significantly helped elevate the MLS games to new heights, their presence was not enough to attract fans from the international community, which still fancies European leagues, especially the EPL, over the MLS.  

This could still change though, if Team USA would win the FIFA World Cup next year or in the near future.

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