The Throw-In: MLS aims to go global – fan base already is

Throw-In: Landon Donovan at a soccer clinic in Indonesia

Photo Credit: 
Courtesy of LA Galaxy

When people around Major League Soccer talk goals these days, it’s all about immensely lofty ambitions.

The LA Galaxy want to be a globally recognizable brand on the level of Manchester United and Barcelona. The Vancouver Whitecaps want to be one of the top 25 clubs in the world.

Lately, even Commissioner Don Garber has been targeting 2022 as the end date to put MLS among the globe’s biggest leagues.

For those things to happen, you need some key ingredients: a high quality of play (getting there). Increasing relevance of the clubs (also improving every year). A high-volume business on the ledger (the dollar signs are good).

But perhaps most importantly, you need passionate fans. Lots of them – crawling out of the woodwork from Johannesburg to Jakarta to João Pessoa to Jerusalem.

And by that metric, the future of our once little-league-that-could is awfully exciting. In honor of Supporters Week, we took a little stroll through the level of fanhood for MLS that extends far beyond the borders of the United States and Canada, and the results were sometimes surprising.

A simple look at traffic to MLSsoccer.com shows that literally every continent on earth where people live has an interest. Any time Joel Lindpere is featured in a story, the numbers spike in Estonia. When Juninho drills a long-range bullet, Brazilians click on the video clip in massive numbers.

Outside the US and Canada, readers from the United Kingdom represent the third-highest percentage of visitors to the site since Jan. 1 of this year. Perhaps not a huge shock given that there’s no language barrier and that a certain tattooed former England captain still plies his trade in Southern California. But that’s far from the only reason.

“One of the main reasons I first watched MLS was because I was discontent with football here in England,” says Jon Parker of Ipswich, England, a self-professed die-hard New England Revolution fan. “I got bored with watching leagues where the billionaires bought teams for fun and the team with the highest-paid ‘bounty hunters’ won the league, while all the small clubs lost out.”

Parker loves what he perceives to be a more level playing field in MLS, and his fandom even caught the attention of some Revs fans on Twitter, who sent him a care package of New England gear.

“I wear my scarf everywhere,” he says. “It’s a great conversation piece when I’m out and about and it’s great to be able to introduce more people to MLS.”

Parker also helps manage the army of writers on the website MLS UK, a British take on the league that has a dedicated writer covering each team. Parker and his friends are trying to organize a viewing party in a London pub for MLS Cup 2012 – even if his beloved Revs don’t get there.

Right behind the UK in terms of numbers in Brazil, where the residents may not speak the language, but they know a sweet goal when they see one. Felipe Martins’ golazo in Kansas City earlier this month brought in the clicks by the thousands.

But some fans, like São Paulo native Bruno Telloli, take even more initiative. Like Parker, Telloli also runs a blog about MLS aimed at his countrymen. Matches are available in Brazil through ESPN, and Telloli tries to get the word out through MLS Brasil.

“My favorite player is Juninho,” says Telloli. “He’s great, smart and he played for my team here in Brazil. But I also like [Vancouver’s] Camilo – great player and probably a great future in his career.”

Telloli wishes more Brazilians would take on the more challenging game in MLS than going for a quick payout in Asia, and hopes someday to see his onetime São Paulo FC hero Kaká wearing the kit of an MLS team.

Optimistic that MLS is chasing younger fans abroad as well? Thomas Andre Adanes is a 16-year-old New York Red Bulls fan in Bergen, Norway, whose passion for the club dates back to their MetroStars days.

“In ’09, something wonderful happened,” he explains. “NYRB got Erik Solér as their [sporting] director. Then the websites in Norway also started to write about MLS.”

Adanes identified quickly with Red Bull’s shift toward Scandinavian, familiar with head coach Hans Backe as well as Lindpere and Jan Gunnar Solli, both of whom played in the Norwegian league.

“I was kind of angry when NYRB got Solli on a free transfer,” he admits, “since he was playing on my favorite team in Norway. ... But I’m glad he is doing his good stuff over the sea.”

Want to go further afield? How about Asia? The reason some of the big European clubs make preseason swings through the Far East is because they know there are fans to be had there. And that goes the same for the LA Galaxy, who have done it nearly every winter since David Beckham arrived.

Bali, Indonesia, native Marselinus Saputra is one such fan who became hooked. A Man. United supporter for years, Saputra first took interest in MLS nine years ago when then-MetroStar Tim Howard was plucked by Sir Alex Ferguson.

“When Beckham signed for Galaxy,” he says, “it dragged me further in the league. Thanks to the Internet, I can follow MLS every day. And personally, I wish our national league can learn from it.”

From Argentina to Singapore to Ukraine to Mexico, they’re out there. Travel anywhere in the world, you might meet a fellow fan. That 10-year plan to join the global elite doesn’t sound crazy at all.

Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.