MLS 'poised to flourish' in post-Beckham era
LOS ANGELES (AFP) –
Major League Soccer is poised to flourish in the post-David Beckham era, with football’s foothold in the United States growing ever stronger, MLS Commissioner Don Garber believes.
With 2012 marking the 100th year of FIFA-recognized football in the United States, Garber said the professional league that began play in 1996 enjoyed its most successful season to date, with burgeoning attendance, increased television exposure and improved quality of play.
Former England midfielder Beckham will play his final MLS match on Saturday, when his Los Angeles Galaxy attempt to repeat as MLS Cup champions.
Garber said he had no regrets about any aspect of the $32.5 million, five-year contract Beckham signed when he originally departed Real Madrid for a US league that was lightly regarded in global football circles.
Garber said Beckham “over-delivered” on all of his stated aims — to win, and to increase the league’s profile at home and abroad.
“There’s arguably not a soccer fan on this planet that doesn’t know the LA Galaxy and Major League Soccer, and David played a significant role in helping us make that happen,” Garber said.
The league is already working to consolidate those gains in a country where sports fans are spoiled for choice.
Dan Courtemanche, the league’s executive vice president of communications, admitted officials were “surprised” that the ESPN-backed Sports Poll, based on a database designed by social scientist Rich Luker, found this year that football was the United States’ second-most popular sport among those aged 12-24.
“They asked 12- to 24-year-olds what’s your favorite sport to consume,” Courtemanche told AFP.
“Number one was NFL — we get that. Number two was professional soccer — that’s a combination of international soccer and MLS. That really surprised us.”
With that in mind, Courtemanche said the league believes NBC television’s recent acquisition of the US broadcast rights to English Premier League matches will benefit MLS, rather than detract from its audience.
“We certainly believe that NBC investing in the English Premier League is a strong statement of what they see as the interest in soccer,” Courtemanche said.
“We’re firm believers in the theory that a rising tide lifts all boats. As the sport grows in the US and Canada MLS, as the biggest boat, will benefit.”
America’s latino community, long considered a natural fan-base for MLS, has even more reason to watch thanks to an influx of players from Central America.
Garber said that the league is adopting a systematic approach to seeking out talent in Central and South America and Asia, while clubs continue to plunge some $20 million a year into academies designed to nurture domestic talent.
Garber admitted that such investment “has not yet paid off” and said the league was considering ways to enhance the playing opportunities for young players, including the possibility of a rule similar to one in Mexico that mandates a miniumum amoung of playing time for players under a specified age.
“We’re working on ways to have a more comprehensive reserve league,” Garber said, saying that could include a closer relationship with the second-division North American Soccer League or incentives to MLS teams “to provide playing opportunities for those players on their first team.”
Also crucial for the game’s profile in the United States is success on the international stage.
Jurgen Klinsmann’s United States scrambled into the final, six-nation round of regional qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.
Garber has admitted a failure of the US to reach the finals in Brazil would be a blow for the game, and said this week that MLS will “do everything possible not to schedule games again during World Cup qualifying dates”.
The league also plans a lighter schedule during the CONCACAF Gold Cup in July.
In the meantime next season, the league will press ahead with its pursuit of putting a 20th team in New York, with the focus now on gaining approval for a stadium in Queens, near the current home of the US Open Tennis Championships.
Garber insisted the creation of a second team in the New York market, along with the New Jersey-based Red Bulls, would provide a regional rivalry valuable to both.
“We believe that a second team in New York will help create an opportunity to break through the clutter in this market,” Garber said — a nutshell of what remains one of the league’s main tasks nationwide.
“There are 13 million people in this city. We need to give them all an opportunity to stop for a moment and pay attention to Major League Soccer.”