The Rise of Soccer in America: MLS Playoffs Heating Up

Arie Knops, Sports Reporter

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Illustration by Haley King

The 2016 Major League Soccer (MLS) season is coming to a close and its popularity has never been higher. The 2016 season had 25.7 million gross viewership, an eight percent increase from the 2015 season. The league is particularly optimistic because 55 percent of its viewership was aged 18-49, the highest percentage of any North American sports league.

The MLS also continues to see growth in attendance, which was at an all time high this year, with an average of 21,692 per match. This number ranks third in all U.S. professional sports leagues, only behind the NFL and MLB.

Seniors Austin Shaff and Spencer Mueller provided a variety of reasons for why they believed the popularity of soccer continues to increase in the U.S. “I think soccer continues to grow in popularity in part because of increased youth participation. More people have played and continue to play, and as a result I think that has contributed to the growth in popularity,” Shaff said.

Mueller believes, “Soccer in the U.S. has usually suffered because it tries too hard to be like American Football; big hits, lots of showmanship and goliath-players. A new generation of sports fans have grown tired with that model of excess and are turning to something simpler. It took some time, but Americans are beginning to realize soccer’s global popularity wasn’t an accident.”

“I also think U.S. Soccer’s success [at the international level] has contributed to the increase in popularity of MLS,” Shaff added

However, the popularity of the MLS still pales in comparison to many leagues around the world. Luke Hampton, current Resident Director of Anderson Hall, chooses to watch La Liga (Spain’s primary league) and the Premier League (England’s primary league) over the MLS.

“While the MLS can be entertaining and the league is definitely improving, the main European leagues (Spain, England, Germany, France, Italy, even Netherlands and Portugal) are on another level. It’s a difference that you really notice more when you have a better understanding of the game and once you have a deeper understanding of the game, MLS soccer really starts to lose its watchability. It’s boring in the way that a calculus student wouldn’t be stimulated by algebra or trigonometry; while there are moments of beauty, it lacks the complexity, subtlety and overall quality. In the game this shows through tactics, first touch and what I, and many others, call soccer IQ,” Hampton said. “There’s also a much deeper history and tradition that enhances the overall experience of the European soccer scene.”

One primary difference between the MLS and other leagues across the world is that the MLS utilizes a playoff system. In other leagues, the team with the points at the end of the season is crowned champion. However, like other American sports leagues, the MLS has top teams enter knockout rounds at the end of the season. 12 of the 20 MLS teams enter the playoffs, and MLS critics believe this leads to a decreased importance on regular season games. But supporters love the thrill of a playoff system, which is currently occurring for the 2016 season.

Only four teams remain, with conference finals coming up in the next few weeks. One of the teams that remains are the Seattle Sounders, Mueller’s team of choice, who entered the playoffs in dramatic fashion.

“We came back from last place in the league. We’ve had must-win games for the last two months. We didn’t even have a permanent coach until last week. After all of that, we’re scoring goals for fun and it’s incredible to watch,” Mueller said.

Overall, the youth’s increased interest in the MLS and soccer in general suggests that we will only continue to see a rise in the popularity of the MLS for years to come.

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