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From a far off view, the MLS comes off as a far inferior league. A league that is not worthy to talk about if David Beckham is not involved. The attendance is modest, and the salary cap limits the quality of play.
These are just realities that the league and its fans deal with. Although the execs like to aim high and suggest the ‘soccer’ is becoming the fourth (hockey has the same level of support as ‘soccer’) major American sport, that day is still not here. The path ‘soccer’ in America must take to get to that day is clear, and it lies directly upon the Latino population.
This past Sunday, I attended the CONCACAF Gold Cup Final, the North and Central American equivalent of the European Championship’s Final. The match was being contested by the USA and Mexico at the Meadowlands, a sports complex just outside of New York City. The game was a sell out, and the most well attended ‘soccer’ match in the history of the stadium with 79,000 plus cramming in. The crowd was 20% Pro-US, and 80% Pro-Mexico. A light went off. If there are 80,000 fans who care to see USA-Mexico despite the fact that the USA had a C-Squad, and Mexico had a B-Squad; why can’t some of them come out to the local team’s games, Red Bull New York?
The atmosphere was top class. Once the Mexicans scored fifteen minutes into the second half, the crowd went wild. The Mexican Wave went around the stadium, beer went flying, and the Mexican Flags were out. Why can’t this pride for country become pride for one’s local club team? If MLS teams market more aggressively to Latino populations, they can improve their attendances, improve their bottom lines, and will be able to put more into the product on the field.
While an increase in Latino fans will make the league more successful in many facets, the Latino population is also the key to improving the quality of play directly. The US team that I saw had no latino names on it. It was a squad of names such as Goodson and Holden, not of names such as Martinez and Rodriguez. Now I’m not saying the team has to be all Latino, but a mix would better represent the demographics of America. The latino population is 44 million strong, and growing rapidly. Despite their status as the biggest minority group in the USA, they still have yet to produce many strong footballers that are capable of representing the US Men’s National Team. Recent signs are encouraging though. Jose Francisco Torres is the first true Latino since Claudio Reyna to make the US National Team, featuring in a couple of World Cup Qualifiers, and making the Confederations Cup squad. There are other hopeful signs as well. Edgar Castillo, a promising left back who slipped through the youth systems in America wound up being a star in Mexico. After representing Mexico in three friendlies, he has decided to switch his allegiances to the USA. These are encouraging signs, but the Latino population, being soccer obsessed has the potential to produce many talented players for both MLS and the USMNT.
The path is clear. Engage the Latino community to support MLS and MLS will benefit. Have the Latino community produce players that can help MLS and the USMNT and both will benefit. That’s how ‘soccer’ will gain a larger foothold in the US.