With the threat of a strike over and with the league making steady progress year after year, there are lots of reasons to think that this year could be a breakthrough year for Major League Soccer.
What do I mean by breakthrough? For instance, if you look at 2009, I would argue that it was a breakthrough year for the US national team. The Confederations Cup performance - where the US beat Spain and narrowly lost to Brazil - created a huge amount buzz at home and abroad. It got people talking about soccer. The traditional sports media was forced to take notice - Dan Patrick had Landon Donovan on his radio show twice, ESPN's SportsNation talked about the game, and American newspapers gave the US team extensive coverage. Similarly, the US-Mexico game received unprecedented hype for a World Cup qualifier - NPR covered it in their news updates, ESPN sent a whole crew to do pre and post game coverage, and Bill Simmons declared his love for the yanks. On top of this, ESPN got very serious about soccer - they bought the rights to the Premier League and demonstrated that they would go all out on the World Cup. Furthermore, more US players landed abroad in top leagues - Onyewu to Milan, Davies to France, Jozy to England. US Soccer after the last year is now suddenly quite respected abroad and increasingly followed at home. In that sense, 09 was a real breakout year.
In this sense, I think MLS is primed for a similar year, in which the mainstream American sports world begins to take notice in a serious way. I think MLS will have a number of things going for it.
First, and most importantly, the northeast corridor of the United States - America's cultural and economic heart (sorry Cali) - is going to get a soccer jolt. The New York market looks like it finally may get tapped. MLS in NYC has for too long been less than an after thought. Playing in the distant and isolated Meadowlands in cavernous Giants Stadium, led to pathetic attendance and widespread apathy, which was only further exacerbated by consistently horrible performances on the field over the last decade.
With the opening of a new stadium, the Red Bulls don't just seem to be opening a new venue, they seem to be opening up an offensive to take over New York City. They are marketing the stadium with the humility of New Yorkers, calling it the "future of soccer in America." They have a brilliant new ad, targeting the 20-something urban NYC male demographic, seeking to convince those across the Hudson of the accessibility of Red Bull arena. This is the demographic that has energized teams like DC United, Seattle, and Toronto. The ad has also gotten air time on Fox Soccer Channel, which is no doubt an effort to appeal to the legions of soccer fans in the big apple that follow European leagues but not MLS. This that Red Bulls seem to get it.
It seems safe to expect that the Red Bulls will have large 20,000 plus crowds throughout the year. Such turnout at such a flashy arena will inevitably draw greater attention and boost interest in the team in the area. While this will help put people in the seats, expanded interest will also help boost television ratings in the hugely important New York media market. This could be of potentially huge significance to the league by boosting television ratings nationwide - expanding MLS' television ratings is vital to making the league more profitable. Additionally, since the New York media market often drives coverage and opinion nation-wide, making in roads here will give the league greater credibility nationwide. In other words, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. The Red Bulls of course have to cut it on the field, but they can't be as bad as last year and with new coach Hans Backe there is a degree of optimism.
Everybody hates Philly. It seems bizarre that this hotbed of a sports town is only now getting a MLS team. Philadelphia is a big market. It is in a region that has significant interest in the game. It will have a grand stadium on the waterfront (although it is a bit unfortunate it is not more centrally located). These factors make it seem clear that Philly will be a great success, perhaps on par with Toronto and Seattle. But I think what makes Philly even more important to the league is that sports fans in DC and New York hate Philadelphia sports teams. Did I mention it is sports-crazed city? Philly had a prominent supporters group called "the Sons of Ben" years before it was ever granted a team. These guys would go to random DC and New York games to cheer against them. Sure DC has a rivalry with New York, but that has never got the blood boiling the way the NFC East rivalries do in the NFL. The rivalries that Philly will generate with NYC and DC should be fantastic for the league and give soccer in the northeast corridor, America's largest media market, an important jolt of interest and enthusiasm.
Second, new some new arrivals will cause of stir. The loss of Beckham to injury for what could be the entire season, is definitely a blow to the league. But with rumors of Barcelona's Thierry Henry or Real Madrid's Raul interested in coming to MLS, it seems pretty probable that the league will land a couple of well known internationals that have a decent amount of juice in the tank. These players will not only add some talent but will draw some attention in the US, as well as in their home countries. Additionally, this rookie class that should turn some heads just like last years. The young talent in the league is getting better and a couple of the young rookies should be impact players right away.
Third, the World Cup will leave many wanting more. Soccer will be treated more seriously during the month of June than it ever has been before in the United States. ESPN is absolutely going all out, the US-England game will by tremendously hyped, and for the perhaps the first time, soccer will dominate the American sport space for an extended period of time. Immediately, after the last World Cup, Bill Simmons, once a noted soccer knocker, wrote a column saying he found himself missing the game and he decided to pick an EPL team to support. After a month of soccer madness, MLS will be able to bask in some of this reflected glory, especially if the yanks do well. It is hard to say how much of an affect this will have. But one has to assume that it will have some.
Fourth, 16 teams is a credible amount of teams and will add more intensity to regular season games. The playoff chase was quite exciting last year, but that was partly due to the mediocrity of all the those competing for the final few spots. But now, with half the teams missing out on the playoffs, there will be a bit more pressure right off the bat, making every game will matter just a bit more than it used to.
So how will we know if this is a break out year? Culturally, it will in some ways be a bit like pornography - you will know it when you see it. I think in general a bit better and more thorough coverage on Sportscenter, a notable traditional (read old white guy dead tree) journalist discovers the league and says so. Economically, and most importantly, there will be an uptick in television ratings and overall league attendance should rise. In general, MLS will go into 2011 with the wind at its back. With two new teams entering next year - Portland and Vancouver - MLS, before this year is done, will likely have investors chomping at the bit for additional expansion franchises.