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Tough challenges ahead for MLS

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Even before the world's finest players packed their bags and left the 1994 World Cup, the long-term future of soccer in the United States was a hot topic of conversation.

The global tournament brought to North America primarily to spark growth in the world's biggest market was drawing to a close and, despite a month of thrills and spills, the manifestation of the game here would be a long, drawn-out process with an uncertain conclusion. The spin-off that followed was to be called Major League Soccer and the predictions for this new domestic endeavor in the beautiful game were mainly gloomy.

While the World Cup generated billions of dollars in revenues and was a captivating four-week fiesta, most expert opinion expected MLS to crumple and fold within a few years. The other, more upbeat side of the argument was that the real answer to whether a soccer market existed in the U.S. would not be seen for years.

First, reason suggested, there would need to be prolonged exposure, designated soccer stadiums and a grownup generation of potential fans who had played the sport in their childhood. Fifteen later, those factors are finally in place, yet the full potential for MLS remains something of a mystery.

Heading into the league's 14th campaign this week, we may at last be close to seeing the full picture.

Seattle reign brightens MLS forecast

No professional sports league can afford too many wrong steps just now, especially one embarking on such an ambitious expansion program as Major League Soccer.

As the financial climate has steadily worsened over the past year, so too has the scrutiny on Seattle Sounders FC, the latest addition to the MLS stable.

The Seattle club kicks off its inaugural season and the league's 2009 campaign on Thursday night when it hosts the New York Red Bulls at Qwest Field. If early indications are anything to go by, it appears as if league chiefs have every reason to be upbeat about the prospects of its newest member becoming a genuine success story.

With a heavyweight ownership group led by Microsoft's Paul Allen and including "The Price Is Right" host Drew Carey, the Sounders' hierarchy is determined to make a splash from the outset.

The local public has responded strongly, with 22,000 season tickets having been snapped up for the 2009 campaign. On opening night, thousands of fans will congregate in a nearby park before being led to the stadium by a marching band. Supporters have also enjoyed an initiative implemented by Carey, which allows fans to vote on the club's choice of general manager.

Seattle's example shows that, while MLS struggles to gain widespread recognition, it can and will succeed in drumming up impressive support – with the right market, the right owners and the right fan base.

– Martin Rogers

Perhaps the greatest success of Major League Soccer is that it has survived at all, especially given the early skepticism and resistance to it. Extinction and collapse are now far from reality; a bigger danger by far is whether there is a glass ceiling stunting future growth.

Yet it is not other, more established North American sports that hold MLS back. The league has proved it can coexist somewhat happily below the big three of the NFL, the NBA and Major League Baseball. In the eyes of many soccer observers, the primary threat to MLS now comes from within the game itself.

International soccer is now more accessible to the American fan than ever before. The English Premier League, Italian Serie A, the UEFA Champions League and Mexican Primera Division are all widely available on cable television. Even the most ardent MLS fan would accept that all of those products remain far superior in terms of actual soccer quality.

Ratings for last year's MLS Cup final between the Columbus Crew and New York Red Bulls were bitterly disappointing, prompting ESPN to move the league's weekly ESPN2 prime time slot from Thursday to mostly weekend broadcasts this year. Meanwhile, viewing figures for last summer's European Championships, EPL games and international fixtures continue to grow.

"The problem for MLS lies with the nature of the American sports fan," said Mark Ganis, president of Sportscorp Ltd., a Chicago-based firm that specializes in sports economics. "American fans want to see the very best in that sport.

"They get that in all the major sports, even if it takes players from other countries being brought over to play here. That is not the case in soccer and may never be. Having such widespread television access to other soccer leagues where the standard is higher makes it hard for MLS to really kick on."

All of this puts MLS commissioner Don Garber in a tricky position.

Garber and his team have made giant strides on the business front in recent years and in the sports world, the MLS blueprint for a business model is considered to be nearly perfect. It is for that reason that big money men are falling over themselves to get involved, and an expansion race for new franchises due to join the league in 2011 is hotly contested.

Such growth can only take the league so far. With the infrastructure largely in place, MLS is entering a period that will truly indicate how realistic its hopes of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the big leagues of American sports can be.

"Undoubtedly this is an important time," said Garber in a recent interview with Yahoo! Sports. "There are economic challenges that will be felt by every sports organization and we have to be aware of those.

"I do believe interest in soccer has never been higher and continues to grow. People ask me if I am bothered at the level of interest in the European leagues and I am not. If people are watching soccer it is good for us – it is our job to show them that here is a domestic league that is also worth getting behind."

However, the David Beckham era is nearing its end, with the Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder due to finish his MLS career at the end of this season. Beckham could not provide the booster shot needed to help MLS make that giant leap forward. So what can?

Perhaps it will take another World Cup to add the kind of drive required to push the league to a new level. U.S. Soccer is bidding for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments (it is an outsider for '18 but in decent shape for '22) and the chance to host again would be a critical step for the sport in the U.S.

If a World Cup took soccer from ground zero to its current state on the back of 1994, then what could be achieved from a far more advanced platform next time around? It is no wonder MLS is tying itself to the U.S. bid so closely.

Garber accompanied U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati to England last year, where the pair met with British officials and media to kick off a bidding campaign that at that point had not officially begun. Riding the coattails of a World Cup is a long, long way away.

In the meantime, MLS fights its battles like any other sporting enterprise in a difficult economy. While small markets such as Columbus, Toronto and Seattle are flourishing, explosive growth in the bigger cities is hard to come by. Imaginative marketing campaigns have become the norm this season as competition for the public's dwindling entertainment dollars heats up.

So MLS continues to push and prod and nudge the public towards greater consciousness of what it is all about. While greater acceptance may be within sight, the ultimate goal remains elusive. Will it take five or 10 or 15 years to get MLS established at the point it craves? Will it happen at all?

"That is the billion dollar question," Ganis said. "Things are getting better all the time, but are the improvements significant enough to propel that big leap needed to bridge the gap? I think in 10 years the U.S. will have a better league, but not the best. And ultimately, that is what the people want."

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