Opinion: Soccer’s rise in popularity is exciting to watch

Wlhen you think about sports in the United States, chances are soccer isn’t the first to come to mind. American football, basketball and baseball have dominated the attention of sports enthusiasts for over a century, leaving soccer to other countries. However, in the past several years, soccer has experienced a growth in the United States and Canada, igniting a newly found passion for the beautiful game. The popularity of the sport in this region has been continuously increasing, and it seems the trend won’t stop anytime soon.

Interest in soccer surged around the time the U.S. hosted the World Cup in 1994. Major League Soccer had a humble beginning in 1996, with only ten teams competing for glory. In the following years, the league experienced troubles, losing hundreds of millions of dollars and leaving executives questioning the existence of a U.S. soccer market. Things took a turn for the better in 2007, when the Designated Player Rule was put into effect. This rule permitted for the hiring of players outside the team’s salary cap, allowing worldwide phenomenon David Beckham to join LA Galaxy on a five-year contract. This move brought attention to the league, being a catalyst of things to come.

The league continued growing, adding expansion teams that originated from the older North American Soccer League. Two of the biggest additions to the MLS roster came from the Pacific Northwest: the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders. Many consider Portland to be a “Soccer City,” as is seen in the tremendous support of the “Timbers Army.” To date, they hold the record for selling out every home ticket for regular and playoffs games. The Providence Park stadium has one of the best soccer atmospheres in the nation, where roaring cheers shake the stands of the 20,000 plus people supporting their team. Such is the interest for the Timbers that an expansion for their stadium has been ordered, adding an extra 4,000 seats for the fervent fans. Seattle is equally impressive, as the current MLS Cup 2016 Champions manage to attract around 42,236 people per game, the league’s highest attendance.

Other cities that attract large crowds include Orlando, Toronto, New York and Los Angeles. The numbers of attendance, which have grown continuously for three straight seasons, lead to the MLS becoming the world’s sixth most attended football league in 2016. This puts it ahead of the leagues of World Cup winner countries like Italy and France. This growth will likely continue, as newcomer Atlanta United FC just experienced a record-breaking number of season tickets sold. In fact, on their debut game against the New York Red Bulls last March, Atlanta United FC had the fourth most attended game in the world, just behind European giants like FC Barcelona and Manchester United.

One of the biggest challenges the MLS faces is the talent of their players compared to other, more established leagues. Unlike baseball or basketball, where the best players in the world play in America, other countries have more prestigious football leagues — which keeps the most talented players in Europe. The MLS has seen its share of world-class players, such as Thierry Henry, David Beckham, and Ricardo Kaká. However, there is criticism because many of these stars have come to the MLS past the prime of their careers, creating the stigma that this is a league for retirement. This association will hopefully change, as teams are looking for younger talent playing at their best level. Examples of this include players like Sebastian Giovinco, Nicolas Lodeiro, and Miguel Almiron.

Perhaps a way to see how the MLS players measure against the very best will be during summer, when the stars of the league will play against current Union of European Football Associations Champions League winner Real Madrid in Chicago. It will be thrilling to see the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale playing against our own Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard.

A few weeks ago, the United States announced a bid to host the 2026 World Cup in partnership with Mexico and Canada. The U.S. would host 60 of the 80 games, including the final match. This would be the first time since 1994 that the event came to the Americas, bringing attention to the sport along with it, just like it did over two decades ago.

I was born in a country where football is idolized, and represents a major part of the culture. After moving to the U.S., my interest for it dropped. It wasn’t due to lack of care, but because I wasn’t exposed to it the way I was in Latin America. I still paid attention to important games, like the U.S. Men’s National Team participation in the 2010 World Cup. I vividly recall the U.S.A. versus Algeria game, where I jumped and fist-bumped the air when Landon Donovan scored at the very end of the match, allowing the U.S. to go to the next stage of the competition. Moments like that are a reminder of the spine-tingling emotions sports give us, specially football. Since the past year I’ve been regularly watching MLS games, which has rekindled my love for the sport. It helps that the Seattle Sounders are one of the best teams in the country, and a perfect entry-point for those developing an interest in soccer.

For fans of U.S. soccer, it’s great to see how far the sport has come. Its rapid growth signals the demand for it, resulting in teams bringing more high quality players — be them local or international. While the MLS might not yet be at the level of the world’s most prestigious leagues, it still features quality games every week, satisfying the needs of the soccer aficionado. If you have the chance, I strongly suggest attending one of the Seattle Sounders home games. On May 27th, they will face the Portland Timbers, a match which Sports Illustrated named one of the top 10 best football rivalries in the world. Seeing the players walk to the center of the pitch while thousands of fans raise their scarves and echo their names is always a great experience. Being at a soccer game is something special, and don’t be surprised if this is something that more people start doing as the sport keeps increasing in popularity. With new teams and players joining the MLS, as well as the chance of hosting another World Cup, the future for soccer in the U.S. looks promising.

COURTESY OF TODD KIRKLAND

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