Major League Soccer Finally On Solid Footing, But Hasn't Reached Big Time

Major League Soccer gets underway this weekend. We preview the teams and what to expect this season.

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The Major League Soccer season starts tomorrow. Superstar David Beckham is gone and there aren't any new teams to get excited about this year. But the MLS is on solid footing, and as NPR's Mike Pesca reports, the league has big ambitions.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Having just turned 18 years old, Major League Soccer is now in its own demographic. Young people are drawn to the league. It's very popular among Hispanics and lots of women watch, too. The fan experience in the league's 19 stadiums, 14 of which are soccer-specific, is a fun mix of sounds, scarves and songs. League commissioner Don Garber has reason to brag about what is now the most successful professional soccer league in U.S. history.

DON GARBER: Great start. Last season we attracted over 6 million fans, averaging close to 19,000 fans a game. To put that in perspective, Major League Soccer's now the seventh-highest-attended professional soccer league in the entire world.

PESCA: Garber talked up his game during a Google hangout, the coolest part of which was that it was a Google hangout. The MLS does well financially, but it isn't the freight train of profitability of, say, the NFL or baseball. The MLS has expanded, but it still has a third fewer teams than the other major North American sports leagues.

The MLS is stable, fan-friendly and earning international respect. Commissioner Garber wants more.

GARBER: By 2022, we want to be one of the top soccer leagues in the world.

PESCA: To get there, the MLS will have to address some of its underlying issues, like relatively poor TV ratings and relatively low salaries. Take Eddie Johnson, who has a joyous attitude about playing for the Seattle Sounders.

EDDIE JOHNSON: I think we average about 44, 45,000 fans a game. It is a blessing to be there and be in such a city where soccer is really big. You know, when we go out, we get recognized like guys on the Seahawks.

PESCA: But Johnson is paid only $100,000 a year. Though his career has been turbulent, last season in Seattle he made the MLS all-star team. If his play continues on this upswing, there's a question as to whether Seattle can pay him fair-market value. The salary cap keeps an MLS team's entire payroll under $3 million but for one superstar exception. There are well over 100 soccer teams in the world with higher payrolls than the average MLS team.

Higher salaries will necessarily attract better players, but the low salaries do have their benefits. Take the second Los Angeles team, Chivas. On game day, goalkeeper Dan Kennedy can be heard barking commands to his teammates.

DAN KENNEDY: (Speaking foreign language).

PESCA: You don't have to be an expert on accents to get that Kennedy is a Californian of Irish ancestry who speaks enough Spanish to get by. But he is one of the handful of goats - Chivas is Spanish for goats - who are not foreign-born or Latino. Chivas USA is meant to appeal primarily to the Spanish market, a niche play that you don't see in other sports leagues. Such a strategy is a sign of the evolution of the MLS. Dan Kennedy points to the next goal for a league which seems to have gotten the in-game experience right.

KENNEDY: To take that next step, we need to have the viewers have that same special feeling when they're at home on their couch watching these games.

PESCA: Last year's finals drew fewer viewers than the year before. The sport knows full well that it could call itself Major League Soccer, but until it's pulling in heaps of TV viewers, it won't be big-time. Mike Pesca, NPR News.

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