Posted by: mdegeorge | August 22, 2010

Viewing the next step in America’s soccer explosion

I did something I haven’t done in years yesterday: I watched an MLS game on television start to finish. Sure, I switched back and forth in the first half to the second half of Chelsea’s 6-0 mauling of Wigan, but the channel monopolizing the majority of time on my television was MSG showing New York Red Bulls at Toronto FC.

And an amazing thing happened. I enjoyed it. It didn’t bore me into changing the channel at any point. It didn’t make my eyelids unbearably heavy (as did the tape-delay showing of Bolton vs. West Ham several hours later).

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It was an engrossing game that featured plenty of entertaining, attacking football. The Red Bulls eventually took home a 4-1 victory, highlighted by a mind-bending half volley goal by new acquisition Rafael Marquez that would have taken plaudits as the best of the day were it not for Gareth Bale’s wonder strike against Stoke.

It wasn’t the ordinarily cagey and occasionally ragged contest the league is often plagued with. Instead, it was an open game thanks to Marquez’s early goal and a red card by Toronto’s Nana Attakora that managed to capture my attention for 90 minutes.

It was around the hour mark when I realized that his was the deepest I had gotten into an MLS game in quite some time. I also realized the hypocrisy of it all.Lately, I’ve become enamored with the idea of MLS’ acquisition of top-flight talent to place it in league with some of the other top soccer nations. But I’ve never put forth a commensurate effort to watch that product when it’s put on display.

It’s a conundrum that American soccer—and American soccer fans—seem to be facing. Interest in the beautiful game is ballooning in this country, but the interest in American soccer that is on display every week isn’t seeing an equivalent bounce. Soccer fans in America are hungry for improvements in the national team, but unwilling to change the dial to see its most important feeder system do its work.

The MLS does have its small and intensely loyal nucleus of diehards as you would expect from any fledgling league (and still yet to complete its second decade, MLS qualifies in that category). But it has yet to experience the ratings bonanza that the wild support of the World Cup might suggest. The fanfare of David Beckham and Thierry Henry has caused small stirs in the viewing currents, but nothing sustained as of yet.

That begs the question of what it will take to get the viewers on board en masse. So far, it doesn’t look like scattered stars will do the trick. So what will be the critical mass? Is it a dominant team, like the DC United teams of now a decade past? Is it one extremely marketable team that is as capable of inspiring hatred away from home as it is adoration from its own supporters? (We’ll call that “The Yankee Effect”, and the Red Bulls could be a candidate to propagate it.)

As for me, the enlightened viewer that I am, I’ll be making a more concerted effort to give the league its due. Consider it my small patriotic contribution to USA Soccer.

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