Major League Soccer's attendance is up and fan interest is booming, even if television broadcasts are far less popular and some young Americans would rather play in Europe.
MLS averaged 22,000 in attendance for the first time in its history this season, ranked among the top seven leagues in the world. The league is set to add a second Los Angeles franchise next year, announce two expansion cities next month and at some point finalize David Beckham's long-pending Miami club.
But viewers averaged under 300,000 for nationally televised regular-season matches, fewer than the average for a New York Yankees game on their regional sports network. Several top young Americans, such as Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie, have chosen to forego the MLS to play in Germany and test their mettle in a more demanding environment.
And worst of all, the United States — whose roster was filled with MLS stars — failed to qualify for next year's World Cup, ending a streak of seven straight appearances in soccer's showcase.
"We need to use this failure as a wakeup call for everyone associated with the sport at all levels to ensure that we have the right processes and mechanisms and development programs and leadership and governance in place to learn from this missed opportunity to ensure that it never happens again," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said this week. "Part of the maturation of becoming a soccer nation is recognizing that qualifying for the World Cup is not a birthright. It's something you need to earn, and we are unfortunately in the company of some great soccer nations, like Italy and Holland and Ghana and Chile — Copa champions — that have also not qualified."
MLS playoffs resume next week after the international break with the first leg of Conference Championships. Columbus — whose owners are threatening to move to Austin, Texas, in 2019 — hosts Toronto, while Houston is home against Seattle.
"MLS and soccer in the United States have made great advances in many areas. But its promoters have found that the abundance of existing legacy sports leagues that have the highest quality of athletes on the planet creates a ceiling on professional soccer in the United States," said Marc Ganis, president of the consulting firm SportsCorp. "It has not, and perhaps never, will supplant any of the major legacy sports unless and until the quality of play and players increases significantly and the U.S. men's team in particular is more competitive and, in fact, wins some of the major international tournaments."
Momentum of playoff runs was interrupted because of World Cup qualifying, and the culmination of the league's season competes for attention with the NFL and college football among the wider American sports audience.
"Long-term demographic things like CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and stuff with the NFL says maybe there is a long slow decline around some of that, but when you're starting from where they're starting, that's going to take a generation," Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said. "We'll grow because most of the immigration to the U.S. is from soccer-playing countries and the country is going to grow."
Launched with 10 teams in 1996, two years after the U.S. hosted the World Cup, MLS expanded to 12 but cut back to 10 after the 2001 season. There has been steady growth since expansion started in 2004. Next year's total will be 23, already well over the norm for a first division, and the league is planning to settle at 28.
Infrastructure could not be more different than in the early days. The league has 14 soccer specific stadiums, two more renovated for the sport and one built with both the NFL and soccer in mind. Three more soccer stadiums are under construction.
Average attendance is up 60 percent from 13,756 in 2000, boosted this year by 48,200 for Atlanta in its opening season. MLS trails only the Germany's Bundesliga, England's Premier League, Spain's La Liga, Mexico's Liga MX, the Chinese Super League and Serie A, with Italy's first division ahead by only 22,177 to 22,106.
But that has not translated yet into big television ratings.
ESPN averaged 272,000 for 30 telecasts this regular season on ESPN and ESPN2, and Fox averaged 236,000 for 33 broadcasts on FS1 and Fox. In addition, Univision is averaging 250,000 viewers for its Spanish-language MLS telecasts.
But the Premier League attracts a larger audience, averaging 422,000 on NBC, NBCSN and CNBC, even though many matches are on weekend mornings.
"We're not the Premier League," Garber said, pointing out last year's MLS Cup drew 1.4 million viewers on Fox. "The fact that we're able to generate ratings growth across all of our partners here and in Canada, and dramatic growth in Canada, is a positive. So we actually, we and our partners, feel pretty darn good."
Player payroll has increased as MLS keeps adding what it calls Targeted Allocation Money. While several older American players have returned to MLS from Europe, many of the teens viewed as the future of the U.S. national team have gone abroad as they emerge from the MLS youth academies, which have been mandated by the league since 2007 and produced more than 250 players with first-team MLS contracts.
Pulisic, at 19 already the leading American star, left Hershey, Pennsylvania, to sign with Borussia Dortmund at age 16, able because of his grandfather's Croatian citizenship to play in Europe before he turned 18. McKennie left FC Dallas' academy when he turned 18, signed with Schalke and scored in his U.S. debut this week.
"I didn't want to become one of those guys that started in MLS and said, man, I wonder if I could have made it to Europe," McKennie said. "I wanted to spread my wings and see what I could do over here."
Forward Josh Sargent decided against Sporting Kansas City and is waiting until he turns 18 in February to sign with Werder Bremen.
"I think I've just always wanted since I was a little kid to play in Europe," he said.
Tyler Adams, who also made his U.S. debut this week, played his first MLS game with the New York Red Bulls last year at age 17 and became a regular this season. Garber says "Tyler Adams probably is playing more minutes today for the Red Bulls than he would if he was not in Major League Soccer."
Adams is happy but thinking ahead.
"Obviously a goal of mine is to play Champions League one day, and obviously the MLS is working its way to becoming one of the top leagues in the world," he said. "Maybe one day I find myself in Europe. You never know."
Sometimes big contracts only stall a career. Matt Miazga left the Red Bulls to sign with Chelsea in January 2016, saw little playing time and didn't get in games regularly until late that autumn during a loan to the Dutch club Vitesse Arnhem.
"If your only desire is to go to Europe, there are flights leaving every hour on the hour from JFK and LAX and everywhere in between," said retired American defender Alexi Lalas, now a Fox analyst. "But getting to a place in Europe where you are making good money, where you are playing consistently, where you are learning, where you are valued as a player and as an American player, where you are able to adapt and adjust and live in the other 22 1/2 hours that we often don't talk about, that's whole 'nother story, and there's not a lot of flights leaving that have that on the other end."
With the U.S. soccer community in turmoil following the World Cup failure, some have called for MLS to guarantee playing time for young Americans.
"Our coaches universally believed that that was not the best way to ensure we had the highest-possible product quality to be able to have competitive games and to drive the growth of our fan base," Garber said.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com