Frank Deford Thinks Americans Don’t Care About MLS. Here’s Why He’s Wrong…



First, let's all take a deep breath. Didn't that feel good?

Now, read (or listen) to this article. Go ahead, I'll wait…

Yes, that headline might be one of the most obvious cases of click bait you'll ever see. And yes, Frank Deford, who's been a sportswriter for longer than most of us have been alive, really did just compare following MLS to "taking the Kardashians seriously."

But if you can look past all that (and believe me, it's not easy) this NPR piece and the man who wrote it actually make some really interesting points.

Deford believes that Americans don't care about Major League Soccer because America is a nation of exceptionalists, and the vast majority of sports fans in this country will only follow leagues that have attained a similar level of global esteem.

And he's not wrong.

This country is home to some of the oldest and most prestigious sports leagues in the world. Athletes from across the globe grow up with dreams of stepping to the plate at Yankee Stadium or dunking on LeBron James. I myself grew up rooting for the same teams as my dad, who inherited them from his own father. Though I would argue that the Cleveland Browns are not "exceptional" at anything.

Deford also points to the popularity of European soccer in the states as evidence that American soccer fans have rejected their own domestic league for the immensely popular English Premier League. And he's got the TV ratings to prove it. But this is also where Deford is wrong, in both his reasoning for why MLS has failed to gain immense popularity and that Americans will "never" support the game in this country.

According to Deford, soccer's global popularity is holding MLS back, because Americans have so many other (and better) leagues to support. Ever since NBC gained the rights to broadcast EPL games stateside, the ratings have shown that American interest in European soccer is at an all time high. But American interest in the global game and support for soccer here at home are not mutually exclusive ideas.

If anything, this support for European soccer should be welcome news to MLS. The one thing that not even Deford can argue is that soccer (as a sport) is experiencing a boom in popularity here in the United States. While I recognize that the “remember the World Cup” argument is trivial, what’s more important is how support for the game has grown with each passing tournament.

During the U.S. Men's National Team's World Cup run in 2010, the celebrations took place in sports bars and living rooms. Last summer, they took place in stadiums.

And all of that was for a United States team without any real chance to win the World Cup. Despite what Deford might think, Americans don't always need to be exceptional just to be interested.

(This next part should be read with your hand over your heart, or at the very least, with Toby Keith's "American Soldier" playing in the background)

That's where I think MLS has a chance to succeed in ways Deford could never imagine. Because the league appeals to that other great American ideal. That's right, I'm talking about democracy.

In Europe, there's really only a handful of teams that actually have a chance to win their league every year. The Man Uniteds and Real Madrids of the world dominate both the standings and a great deal of the international conversation. The teams with the deepest pockets do well about 90% of the time.

Not so in MLS. Just ask Toronto F.C.

This is a league where everyone can say before the first game of the season, "We've got a chance to win it this year." And they can really believe it.

Has soccer surpassed any of America's "other" sports in popularity. Probably not. But are soccer and MLS on a path to success in this country that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago? Absolutely.

While Frank Deford might be skeptical, MLS has entrenched itself in the American sports landscape and is positioned for an increasingly bright future.

To borrow a quote from American football legend Howard Schnellenberger, "the only variable is time."


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