The Throw-In: In Year 17, MLS must now chase all fans

Throw-In: Bunbury

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Season 17 is almost here.

Sounds kinda cool, doesn’t it? Major League Soccer is approaching its late teens.

That’s about the right analogy for our still-young league. Size-wise, we’re just about full-grown. Not many leagues in the world are as big as 19 teams, which means we still have room to grow here. And though we’re nearly full-size – look at those feet! – we’ve still got to fill out a bit and bulk up. But you can see we’re that close to maturity.

We’ve grown more advanced in our studies and we’re smart – very smart – but we’ve still got lots to learn. The impetuousness of our youth is still there, and we’ve still got to become a little more sophisticated.

But best of all, we finally understand that we’re just a tiny piece of a bigger picture of the world at large. As we grow older, bigger and more mature, we’ve grasped that it’s not all about us. The world does not revolve around us. We can always learn more from the outside and we must keep striving to become better and wiser.

We’ve accomplished so much in the past three decades – surviving contraction, spending money slowly but wisely, expanding our talent base, national TV deals, league-wide initiatives that have improved the soccer on the field – that we’ve got a nice body of schoolwork.

Now, as Season No. 17 comes ever closer, it’s about time we started thinking about writing our senior thesis.

This occurred to me the other day during my swing through league headquarters in New York, because there’s been lots of talk about how intelligent and savvy Americans and Canadians have become in the Beautiful Game.

We’re watching the World Cup in record numbers, and more “mainstream sports fans” become converts every tournament. Women’s soccer still has universal appeal, too, and an Olympic year will bring yet more attention to the game we love.

But there’s still some frustration involved in our growing love affair on these shores. I think of it every time my buddy Luis in San Francisco goes loco on Twitter about Real Madrid. Whenever I talk to my friend Pat in Jersey City, N.J., about his affinity for Newcastle United. When Allen in LA gushes over his new-and-improved Sevilla.

That frustration is compounded whenever other friends of mine who themselves are immigrants can’t let go of their Old World clubs, without discussion of room for anyone else in their hearts: North London native Alex and his beloved Spurs; Tanzania-born Hilmy, who will Never Walk Alone; Giovanni and his almost self-righteous defense of Juventus, “the greatest team in Italy.”

Their excuses for not being full-fledged MLS fanatics are slowly dying away.

Not enough stars? Take a good, long look at the 2012 LA Galaxy. Between David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, Omar Gonzalez, Edson Buddle, Juninho and all the rest, we may be looking at the most talented roster assembled by an American or Canadian team since the New York Cosmos of Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer days.

MLS is a retirement league? Tell that to Fredy Montero, Simon Dawkins or Juninho. The league has signed dozens of young players in recent years from Europe and Latin America who could have played for clubs on their own continent.

The supporter culture just isn’t the same? Go make the March to the Match with the Emerald City Supporters. Sing the Doop song with the Sons of Ben. Do the Tetris dance with the Timbers Army. They’re not as old a tradition as Liverpool’s signature song, but even “You’ll Never Walk Alone” started somewhere.

The competition isn’t intense enough? Last year, 12 teams were still in contention for MLS Cup Playoffs berths until the final day of the regular season. And woe is the team that doesn’t take CONCACAF Champions League play seriously anymore. It’s become a priority for MLS teams, so much so that our Mexican counterparts have admitted the day is coming soon that their reign is over.

These friends of ours who get it, the ones who wake up early on weekends to watch the English Premier League or flip on Univisión to watch Club América. The ones who fill up football stadiums when Barcelona or Manchester United come to visit. The ones who proudly sport the jerseys of their favorite European or Latin American teams.

It’s time they became MLS fans, too. Luis’ Real Madrid blanco can live side-by-side with blue and black in his veins. Pat must understand that his Toon Army cred doesn’t prevent him from cheering with the Empire Supporters Club. Allen’s Rojiblancos pride can translate directly to the Rojiblancos in his own backyard.

That’s our next big project. That’s the next step in our league growing up. MLS has taken the steps it needs to take to win these fans’ affection. Now we’ve got to snap them up and prove to them we’re worth the attention.

So bring on Season No. 17. We may not be all the way there just yet. But we’re going to prove to you why you cannot ignore us. We’re not kids anymore.

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