In the midst of the Euros, the second biggest international soccer tournament in the world behind the World Cup, I can’t help but reflect a little on the state of soccer in the United States. Soccer has grown tremendously over the last 15-20 years with the establishment of the MLS, a growth in youth leagues, and greater visibility of top flight international leagues thanks to the likes of Fox Soccer channel and ESPN.
But soccer in the U.S. is still trying to find it’s place. It’s that quirky European sport to most Americans, reflected primarily in the fact that we call it “soccer” instead of its proper “football” like the rest of the world. American football is really just rugby with a couple of rules wrinkles.
The MLS is beginning to open up internationally, but it’s still a very cloistered league, unlike its European counterparts, and one of the biggest things holding it back is its schedule. Whereas leagues across Europe were finishing their seasons in May, the MLS was just getting into gear. While everyone else has a transfer window and is on break for international competitions (like the Euros or World Cup qualifying), the MLS is plowing through the heart of its season.
Now I recognize that a large part of this is purely due to financial concern. Soccer can’t compete in the U.S. with football, basketball, baseball, or even hockey. It’s still a novelty here, just beginning to acquire enough of a dedicated fan base to make the league reasonably assured that it won’t suddenly collapse and go bankrupt (sorry WUSA and WPL). If I had been among those creating the league back in the mid 90’s, I would have advocated for a summer schedule, too. The MLS really just has to compete with baseball domestically which, while strong, doesn’t wield the same sports news clout as the NFL or the simultaneous seasons of the NBA and NHL, not to mention college sports.
But now that the league is established and growing in international recognition, a summer schedule is holding it back. If the MLS really wants to be an internationally visible and competitive league, it needs to get in sync with the European leagues. It needs to facilitate an active flow of domestic and international players to and from the league. And it needs to match the rigor and length of those seasons.
Soccer in the United States is still growing. But unless we start treating professional soccer as more than a novelty, it will never become more than that.