Major star gatherings in Southern California are a rather common sight, but there was something different about that warm Sunday night by the ocean.
Instead of a red carpet in Hollywood, the meeting took place on a green pitch 20 miles to the south in Carson, in front of a capacity crowd of 27,000 at the Stubhub Center, where LA Galaxy played host to New York City.
The cast on the pitch of America’s second oldest soccer-specific stadium resembled a true blockbuster – Steven Gerrard on one side, David Villa and Andrea Pirlo on the other; all of them with Champions League or World Cup winners’ medals, or in Villa’s case – both; all of them true stars and cult heroes of the world’s most popular game.
The star of the show was yet another cult hero, Robbie Keane, as has most often been the case since his arrival to LA in 2011. The Irish forward scored twice and provided the assist for two more goals, bringing his goal total to 89 in 138 games for Galaxy.
The game, a 5-1 Galaxy win, was an extremely one-sided affair, proving how much work still lies ahead of MLS new boys New York City if they are to eclipse the league powerhouse that is Galaxy.
There was still a missing piece to this unique puzzle however: another England legend, Frank Lampard, was unable to play due to injury, so we will have to wait a bit longer for the first Stevie vs Frankie showdown on the other side of the ocean.
Conveniently enough, while dismantling NYC, Galaxy managed to reach a huge milestone in becoming the first MLS team to score 1000 goals in the league’s 19-year history.
Furthermore, the winning coach on the night was Bruce Arena, who was on the losing side in the first MLS game ever, back in April 1996, when San Jose beat DC United 1-0.
That was the very beginning of the third attempt at establishing a professional football league in the United States. At the turn of the 20th century football was actually a very popular sport in North America, and ASL, their first professional league, managed to draw huge crowds in the 1920’s. The Great Depression is often cited as the biggest reason behind its demise, but the fact that afterwards football (or as the Americans call it – soccer) barely existed in American life is resonant of deeper social issues connected to the beautiful game in The States.
For decades soccer was viewed as kids’ sport only, perfect for primary school children of both sexes, but increasingly unpopular from the age of 13 on.
That perception has been changed only recently, with the huge expansion of the game across the globe, larger TV exposure, and the growth of internet.
The second professional league (NASL) was formed in 1968, and it was closely related to the rise of Cosmos, an experimental team from New York, which managed to sign Pele on a three-year-deal in the late seventies. That was the league’s heyday, and the crowds at games were once again up to tens of thousands, but the timing was still not right.
At the same time, American football gradually replaced baseball as the nation’s favorite sport, while the rivalry of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and soon after, the emergence of Michael Jordan helped the NBA come back after a huge crisis. At the LA Olympics, where Jordan reigned supreme, football proved to be extremely popular, but the NASL was nevertheless disbanded the same year.
Understanding that football’s world domination would never be complete without gaining a foothold in North America, FIFA decided to give a helping hand. USA hosted an extremely successful 1994 World cup, and one of the conditions for it was the creation of a fully professional league in the States.
The past 19 years have by no means been an easy road to success. At the beginning the league faced financial struggles (the estimated loss for 1996-2004 was at 350 million dollars) which caused two of its Florida-based teams to fold in 2002. For three years the MLS was down to 10 teams, with both domestic and international football fighting a losing battle for TV viewers.
The 2002 World Cup gave glimmer of hope with the USMNT reaching the quarterfinals, and it was used as the starting point of a new era that in effect began in 2005, with the league expanding to 12 teams again. Within two years a lot changed: not only did the league grow to 14 teams, but it also expanded across the border to Toronto.
Another novelty had far greater consequences: the Designated Player Rule allowed teams to sign top players regardless of salary cap. Many domestic and Latin American stars soon joined MLS clubs, but the key signing was without any doubt David Beckham, whose arrival at LA Galaxy caused a sudden surge in the league’s popularity, both on the home stage and worldwide.
By 2010 the league was on fire, with 16 teams and 10 soccer-specific stadiums, including the Red Bull Arena in the New York area. Red Bulls’ new lucrative sponsorship allowed them to bring another superstar to the league – Thierry Henry.
When Robbie Keane arrived to LA the following year, soccer was already ahead of NBA and NHL in average attendance and at a firm number four among sports in the USA. The annual ESPN Sports Poll showed that the popularity of MLS is rising fast, with three times as many people describing themselves as avid fans now, compared to 2000.
Still, the rise in popularity of international football is even steeper – last summer’s World Cup games had nearly 300 million viewers, 4.4 times more than the 2002 edition. The league’s response was twofold: on one hand it managed to bring in a host of aging global superstars, like Gerrard, Lampard, Pirlo, Villa, Kaka or Didier Drogba, who debuted for Montreal just hours before the big LA showdown.
On the other hand, it succeeded in luring top USMNT stars like Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore back from Europe to MLS clubs. Homegrown players have huge roles all over the league, with Gyasi Zardes and Mix Diskerud starring at Stubhub on Sunday.
There are twenty teams taking part in the current MLS season, with a further three (Atlanta Utd, Minnesota Utd and LAFC) set to join over the next three seasons.
Despite having lost the likes of Landon Donovan, Tim Cahill and Henry, the MLS managed to keep growing domestically and get new fans all across the world.
But the most interesting aspect is in what will follow. Sebastian Giovinco was 28 and still highly regarded in Italy before moving to Toronto this spring. Gio dos Santos (26) was one of the key players at Villarreal, before choosing to move to Galaxy, where he enjoyed a great partnership with Keane this weekend.
With growing TV exposure across the world, ever bigger budgets and the pronounced willingness of the league management to bend the rules if top players can be signed (as was the case with Dos Santos) it’s just a matter of time before MLS clubs can compete with European powerhouses for the current superstars of the game.