Seventy-nine days before the United States' World Cup showdown with England in Rustenburg, the new Major League Soccer season began last night with not so much a bang as a sigh of relief.
A week ago there had been no guarantee the curtain-raiser between the Seattle Sounders and Philadelphia Union would even take place, given the threat of strike action by the players' union.
That it was averted last Saturday with a new five-year collective bargaining agreement between the MLS and players offered an early cause for celebration for a league that is gradually growing up.
As it enters its 15th season, the MLS now boasts 16 clubs with the addition of the Philadelphia franchise. More than half the teams are now in specific football stadiums, with New York Red Bulls – linked with a move for Thierry Henry – leaving Giants Stadium behind for the impressive 25,189-seat Red Bull Arena. One side in particular provide a notable success story, Seattle Sounders achieving an average home crowd of 30,942 in their first MLS campaign last year when, with Freddie Ljungberg in their ranks, they reached the quarter-finals.
The former Liverpool defender Steve Nicol, now coach at New England Revolution, finds reason for encouragement. The longest-serving coach in the MLS, he is entering his ninth season and says: "It has developed with the quality of players. The one thing that hasn't happened is an out-and-out superstar, but the standard is rising. The guy who is 20 on the roster will probably play now, whereas eight years ago if he played, we were in trouble. Teams couldn't live in the Premier League but they could cope with the Championship."
Nicol sends his charges into action tomorrow against an LA Galaxy side missing David Beckham but featuring the league's poster boy Landon Donovan. He says Donovan's impressive recent loan spell at Everton attracted plenty of attention. "Everybody involved in football watched him. He's gone to England and made a name for himself. It is good for us that a guy in our league goes to the Premier League. It gives us more credibility."
Donovan is part of a United States team playing their sixth successive World Cup in June and who were Confederations Cup runners-up in South Africa last year. But according to Grant Wahl, Sports Illustrated writer and author of The Beckham Experiment, the success of the US team and key players like Donovan, Everton's Tim Howard and Fulham's Clint Dempsey does not automatically equate with a strong domestic league. "The concern is there are fewer US players on the World Cup team coming from MLS than ever before. This year it is probably going to be five or six," he says.
Wahl fears that the MLS has "lost some of the star power it had" with the absence of Beckham, who helped Galaxy average crowds of 28,000 on the road in his first two campaigns, and Mexico international Cuauhtemoc Blanco, a big draw for the Hispanic communities, who has left Chicago Fire.
These factors may not have stopped the Sounders selling 36,000 tickets for every game until August but the picture is less rosy elsewhere. LA Galaxy and FC Toronto were the only other franchises to pass the 20,000-mark in 2009 with the overall average falling slightly to 16,037.
Come the World Cup interest will soar. Wahl says: "ESPN are promoting it far more than ever. Whenever you turn it on, not just during soccer games, they are flogging the World Cup." For the first time the MLS will pause during the tournament's first round and at the league's headquarters there is hope the game's biggest show will have a knock-on effect.
England fans will hope Fabio Capello's side can douse that enthusiasm but Nicol does not rule out an upset. "If they are going to surprise England it is going to be a team effort but that is how the American team plays. The one thing the Americans do have is they have been winning a lot of games, and coming back to either win or draw games. They have got a togetherness."
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