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Is MLS truly a major league in the US? It depends where you are

<span>Photograph: Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA Today Sports</span>
Photograph: Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA Today Sports

MLS is entering its 28th season and soccer’s popularity in the US is evident from the thousands who play the game, as well as the popularity of the Premier League, Liga MX … and even a team from north Wales. But many US soccer teams, including those in MLS, can sometimes fail to breach the wall of sporting consciousness in their own back yards.

That stumbling block is evident in America’s two biggest cities. While LA and New York City have a huge number of soccer fans, it is arguable whether their MLS teams are part of the identity of the cities.

For much of 2022, New York City had a major league champion, not that you would know it. New York City FC’s MLS Cup win in December 2021 was largely ignored amid discussions of New York’s major league championship drought. When the New York Giants won the Super Bowl in February 2012, the victory led the local TV news for days. NYC FC’s title, meanwhile, struggled to displace the Jets and Giants in the sports update. The Giants were also granted a ticker tape parade down Broadway after their title victory, while NYC FC were given a smaller reception at City Hall, although it came at a time when the city was discouraging large public gatherings as it recovered from the Covid pandemic.

The same goes for written media. In May 2021, longtime New York Post columnist Mike Vaccaro wondered which team would end the city’s title drought. He didn’t even mention NYC FC, the team that would do so seven months later. In August of this year, the same publication ran an article celebrating the impressive performance of the Mets during the 2022 season.

“Just take a quick look around New York,” the article said. “Overrun by people who wish their primary teams were operating as efficiently as the Mets are operating right now.”

All of this forgot that NYC FC – who sometimes plays games at the Mets’ Citi Field – were the reigning Major League Soccer champion.

The mood was similar around LAFC’s MLS Cup victory in 2022. Coverage of the win in LA’s flagship newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, was limited to a few stories, while the Dodgers’ playoff defeat a few weeks previously had been given blanket coverage.

Detailed coverage and analysis of baseball, football and hockey is understandable and expected – they have been part of both cities’ fabric for decades. And LAFC and NYC FC’s titles brought joy to thousands of the teams’ fans. But the chance to shout about the success of a major league championship in these cities was shunned, and in some cases ignored altogether, rather than positively embraced.

The situation is different in other parts of the US. LAFC’s opponent in the MLS Cup final, Philadelphia Union, enjoy regular coverage in the city’s newspaper, the Inquirer. The buildup to the Union’s appearance in MLS Cup coincided with the Phillies reaching the World Series.

“The Union have definitely broken through, but it’s not as big a deal as the Phillies being in the World Series,” says Jonah Gardner of sports data website, Sports Reference. “When people talk about how Philly sports is having a moment, they mention the Phillies and the World Series and the Union in [MLS] Cup and the Eagles [reaching the Super Bowl]. They’re being presented alongside the others as part of the city’s sports.”

It helps that the Union’s Jim Curtin, who was named MLS Coach of the Year in 2022, is from the area and knows the Philly sports scene. This leads to the kind of cross-sport promotion that can help soccer clubs in cities with multiple teams.

“The way this team has elevated itself in the community and is talked about more in the media – a lot of hard work has gone into that, from our front office to our players,” Curtin said in the run-up to the 2023 season.

“It’s deserved because we are a fun team and are exciting to watch. We’re young, we have great players, and we’ve had success on the field. So that’s a recipe for Philadelphia. A recipe for the fans to fall in love with your group, and I’m really proud of all the growth we’ve had in that area.”

As alluded to by Curtin, MLS teams can do a good job of marketing themselves. And US soccer can deliver exciting stories when space and resources are afforded to those who document it.

The 2022 US Open Cup final, for example, pitted MLS side Orlando City against Sacramento Republic of the USL Championship, American soccer’s de facto second division. It was a unique occasion in the US sporting landscape because a major title was contested by teams not from different conferences or divisions, but from different tiers.

“The US Open Cup final definitely garnered interest in the area,” says Austin David, a soccer writer for the Orlando Sentinel. “They sold out the stadium [Exploria Stadium, Orlando] and the club did a good job of marketing it, reaching out to all the local outlets and really pushing the interest.

“Other Orlando sports teams also pushed out good luck messages to Orlando City for the final, so it got more eyes on it than usual, but Orlando generally is mostly geared towards American football and NBA. Other than the Orlando Magic, Orlando City and Orlando Pride [of the NWSL] are the only other pro teams in the city, yet they are still overshadowed by college and high school American football at times.”

Orlando is not the only MLS city where college football is popular. But in some cities, college sports remain well-supported alongside soccer, rather than necessarily overshadowing it.

One such city is Austin where, despite only joining MLS in 2021, Austin FC attract considerable local coverage and support.

“Austin has got a very robust press corps following Austin FC and there’s a lot of fans out there,” says Austin-based writer Phil West of The Striker. “Part of it is, it really is the only major sports franchise in Austin. You have the [NBA’s] San Antonio Spurs, who ostensibly represent Austin. But though they’re going to play a couple of games here in April, most of their games are in San Antonio, which is 80 miles to the south.

“Obviously with football, which is kind of king in Texas, you have Dallas and Houston, and particularly in Austin you have a huge Dallas Cowboys fanbase, but before Austin FC came, the University of Texas was really the only major sports team that was here.

“There’s been this notion for a while that Austin is a college town, but now it’s really a major metropolitan and cosmopolitan city. Austin FC has filled this need for having a team to call its own.”

No two cities are the same and the popularity of soccer varies across the US. But there’s a feeling in the country that soccer is a global sport rather than an American one.

Part of the reason for this is that although soccer’s history in the US goes back to the 1800s, it can be difficult for a major league that emerged in the 1990s to draw upon that storied history. Some clubs, like those in soccer hotbeds such as Portland and Seattle, are able to do a better job because their teams’ origins pre-date MLS.

“I liken MLS to indie rock in the 90s,” says West. “It’s just kind of waiting for its Nirvana releases Nevermind moment. And that might be happening with the World Cup being here in 2026, with this Apple TV deal, and with more and more stars coming over.”

Just as the 1994 World Cup helped create MLS, there is hope that the 2026 tournament could take the league to the next level. To do so, it needs to convert association football and fútbol fans into MLS fans. And national media treating MLS and the Open Cup as they would other major leagues wouldn’t go amiss either.