MLS suddenly a force to be reckoned with

Colorado Rapids goalkeeper Tim Howard celebrates after stopping Los Angeles Galaxy defender Jeff Larentowicz's shootout kick in the second leg soccer match of the Western Conference semifinals of the MLS cup playoffs in Commerce City, Colo., on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016. Colorado won 1-0 and advances to the next round of the playoffs. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The MLS begins its 22nd season tonight with 22 teams, including two new ones.

The league seems to be on the rise.

Launched in 1996 with just 10 teams, it plans to expand to 28 teams over the next few years, including a possible David Beckham-owned team in Miami and a Landon Donovan-owned team in San Diego. In all, there were 12 expansion bids submitted earlier this year.

Via the Associated Press:

The 12 bids, along with Atlanta United’s season-ticket sales topping 30,000, are proof that soccer continues to gain a foothold in the American sports landscape.

And the media seems to be paying attention:

The league also is seeing plenty of new investment:

Almost every year, it seems, a new stadium sprouts on the MLS landscape. Two will open this year and three are slated in 2018. On Sunday, Orlando will christen a 25,500-seat, privately financed downtown venue. The team played its first two seasons at Camping World Stadium (formerly Citrus Bowl). The new venue will also house the Orlando Pride women’s team. Atlanta will start at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium before moving into Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which will replace Georgia Dome for the NFL’s Falcons. Minnesota will play at a college football facility, TCF Bank Stadium, while it builds its own place. Los Angeles FC is erecting Banc of California Stadium next to the Coliseum and D.C. United broke ground this week on Audi Field, slated to open next summer.

SB Nation’s Kevin McCauley explains why things are going well for the league:

And at age 22, MLS finally appears capable of settling into adulthood. You shouldn’t wonder anymore whether it’s a league you really want to spend time with. It’s different now, and you’ll probably like it. … It has given up on gimmicks. Every team’s primary goal is to win as many soccer games as possible. They believe in themselves enough to trust that results on the pitch — with or without internationally famous stars — is enough for them to draw fans. Every team has been given an incentive to develop their own young talent and to sign prime-age players who can help them win, regardless of name recognition. If you go to an MLS stadium or flip on a game on TV, you are more likely to see good soccer than ever before.

Yahoo! Sports’ Leander Schaerlaeckens is practically glowing:

At this point, to describe Major League Soccer as anything but “thriving” is to either be unrealistic, unfair or willfully ignorant of the enormous ground the 21-year-old circuit has made up in just the last few years. Two more highly anticipated teams — Atlanta United and Minnesota United – join the new season that starts on Friday. The level of play is noticeably improving every season. The playoffs invariably make for great theater. Star power has multiplied. Average attendance is now the sixth-highest of any soccer league in the world — ahead of the Italian and French leagues. New ownerships are falling over themselves to buy expansion franchises for $150 million apiece, plus stadium construction. TV viewership has finally risen and sharply. And the youth academies are starting to bear fruit. This is not some overly friendly assessment. It isn’t cheerleading our domestic league. These are either facts or widely-held and well-supported opinions. MLS is taking off.

The Daily Californian’s Oscar Oxlaj, like many, sees plenty of room for improvement and worries the MLS expanding too quickly:

Why not follow the European model and integrate relegation and promotion? Have a certain number of bad teams descend to a second division, and have some of those teams in those leagues ascend. It would give opportunities for division II teams that have an established fan base get involved at a much bigger stage. It would not only be huge with those fan bases, but it would also help the talent in those ranks further develop, and that would benefit MLS tremendously. But having to start from scratch when we don’t already have product ready to be shown makes no sense.

In case you need to get excited about the new season, FS1 provides three reasons you should care:

What do you think? Will the MLS ever be considered among the top North American sports leagues?

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