LOS ANGELES — By tradition, I guess, the editor in chief of a league website is supposed to write a note at the start of every season.
Well, here is mine ahead of MLS' 17th season. Take it for what it is: an editor's note and everything I believe in when it comes to MLS and soccer in the United States and Canada.
First Kick Calendar
COL vs. CLB: 6 pm ET, MLS LIVE
DC vs. SKC: 7:30 pm ET, MLS LIVE
SJ vs. NE: 10:30 pm ET, MLS LIVE
LA vs. RSL: 10:30 pm ET, MLS LIVE
CHV vs. HOU: 7 pm ET, Galavision
1. No more apologies.
Over the past 16 years, MLS has had its ups and downs, from the league's amazing launch in 1996 to the demoralizing contraction of 2001. But for the most part, these past few years — namely since 2007 when Toronto FC and David Beckham arrived — it has been on the up.
In the past five years, we saw six teams join the league, all of whom have enjoyed incredible success. Not always on the field — yes, I'm looking at you, Toronto — but in the way they have jumped into the fray. Those six teams — Toronto, San Jose, Seattle, Philadelphia, Portland and Vancouver — came in with new attitudes, new owners and, most importantly, new fans who very quickly raised the bar of what it means to be a supporter.
Chants. Marches to the match. Tifo displays. Scarves up. DOOP (whatever that is). All of this has become part of our supporters culture.
Of course, those of us who have been around long enough know that the supporter culture isn't new in MLS. After all, the chanting, marching, scarf-wearing, tifo-displaying fanatics in Section 8 and Midnight Riders and the Screaming Eagles and so on have long had things pretty well figured out. But the newcomers amplified what was already going on, bringing bigger crowds than ever and demanding that they be respected.
Respect is earned, they say. True. But I believe it is also commanded. Too often, in the past, admitting to being an MLS fan meant you always had a quick apology in your back pocket. Or at least an explanation.
Being an MLS fan means something now. It means you recognize that MLS has resonance in the global soccer community, where the LA Galaxy can be seriously discussed in the same breath as Chelsea and AC Milan and Real Madrid. It means you aren't that surprised to see 64,000-plus Seattlites show up to say goodbye to Kasey Keller (right).
Kasey Keller: Goalkeeper of the Year
It means you don't care anymore that some old-school media ignore MLS, because you can get your news from mobile apps and Twitter and watch live games on MLS LIVE. It means you know you're not selling out or betraying anyone if you watch an EPL match on Saturday and support your local club.
In short, it means you have passion. And trust me, during the worst of times, it was passion that pulled the league and its clubs through. A passion for the game and a passion to see something grow.
2. Growth Pattern
And it is growing. On all fronts.
- The Montreal Impact are the league's 19th club. In just a few short years, MLS has gone from being half the size of the EPL, La Liga, Serie A and Ligue 1 to being comparable to all of them in the number of teams. And MLS has one more club than both the Bundesliga and Eredivisie.
- BBVA Compass Stadium, opening in May in Houston, and Saputo Stadium, opening in June in Montreal, will bring the soccer-specific stadium count in the US and Canada to 14. And bulldozers are ready to move for a new stadium in San Jose. I remember a time when there were none.
- NBC has entered into a three-year broadcasting partnership with the league, joining ESPN and Galavision. Arlo White and Kyle Martino will start their slate of games with Dallas-New York on Sunday at 3 pm ET. Many people all have high hopes about the NBC broadcasting deal, and NBC has high hopes for MLS. They wouldn't have made the deal if they didn't believe in it.
But it goes beyond these concrete examples. MLS is also growing in stature. Whether it's the likes of Landon Donovan and Thierry Henry going to the EPL and driving their team's success, or the recent arrivals here of stars like German World Cup star Arne Friedrich, Italian international Matteo Ferrari and Scottish goal machine Kris Boyd, players and coaches and even fans around the world are impressed.
Anecdotally, I've found they are much more impressed and knowledgeable than we actually know. Which leads me to ...
3. MLS is one of the great leagues of the world.
This is something I have said many times in recent years. And, yes, typically the bloke next to me at the bar chokes on his pint when I say it.
2012 Season Preview: Predictions
But I truly believe it.
Because, to me, "greatness" comes in many different forms. And many different characteristics make up a great league.
- Competition: No major league in the world is as competitive as MLS. This really hit me when I was recently forced to predict the MLS Cup finalists for a season preview video (right). I was stuck. Because the league's structure — the salary cap, SuperDraft, playoffs, etc. — makes it uniquely competitive. Unlike the big leagues in Europe, just about every MLS team has a chance at success each year.
- Ownership: MLS has owners who have made real commitments in the face of historically long odds.
- Stadiums: Today, the stadiums and facilities in MLS are top notch. Most of the stadiums are new
- Growth: see above.
- Fans: The number of fans continues to grow. And the number of supporters continues to grow proportionately. Because, you know, passion, etc.
So, as the 17th season of MLS, think about all of this. Or don't. Because there's nothing some editor can do or say that will make you be a fan of MLS the way I am. But, maybe, this year you'll find out out where the league has been, where it is, and where it's going.
We have a saying around our offices: We're getting there. Seems as fitting for MLS as it is for MLSsoccer.com.
Now, let's kick this thing off!