NEW YORK — It wasn’t that long ago that I used to wince whenever a big-time player made his MLS debut. I didn’t worry that the likes of Carlos Valderrama or Youri Djorkaeff or Cuauhtémoc Blanco would fit in. They were great players. They would fit in.
No, my apprehension revolved around something even more personal than that: the inevitable moment when the new star glanced around and saw a half-empty stadium.
For some reason, the camera always caught the new player during during this little ritual, and his expression seemed to betray 1,000 questions: “Where is everyone? Where am I? What have I just done?”
For those of us who have spent the better part of our lives trying to grow this sport — sometimes to the point of obsession — those questions were like studs-up tackles from behind to our deep-felt aspirations. Because we knew these amazing players deserved better. And we knew that American and Canadian soccer fans were capable of better. They just needed a little more time.
Well, that time has come.
Today, I don’t wince. Robbie Keane, Omar Bravo and Torsten Frings took the field this year without any questions in their eyes. In fact, they looked surprised in a good way. The games, the level of play, the facilities, the knowledge, and the crowds all seemed to exceed their expectations.
The reality is, today’s MLS is one of the strongest leagues in the world. The cynic in you might scoff because this is being printed on the league's website. But by just about any objective measure, it's the truth. On the field, MLS may not be on the level of the English Premier League or La Liga at this point, but it’s a lot closer than you might imagine. And from a business standpoint, MLS is on very solid footing — successful expansion clubs, growing audiences, a new TV contract, exciting young players drawing interest from around the world — which is more than can be said for most leagues. (Just ask Portsmouth fans or Real Zaragoza fans.)
In short, soccer in the USA and Canada has come a long way in the last 15 or so years.
Which brings us to this, the first annual North American Soccer Almanac (NASA). In the wake of an extremely busy summer of soccer and the announcement of a landmark TV deal between MLS and NBC, we here at MLSsoccer.com thought this would be a great time to take stock in the league and the rapidly growing North American soccer scene.
This week, we’ll publish a series of articles, infographics, photo galleries, survey results and more that try to put the last 15 years into some kind of perspective. Think of it as a series of snapshots, revealing where we were, where we are, and where we can still go.
Greg Lalas is the editor-in-chief of MLSsoccer.com. He played for the Tampa Bay Mutiny and New England Revolution in MLS.