MLS Rising: Why It’s Time To Pay Attention

Adventure No. 38 – Go to a Portland Timbers Game

One of the things I’ve really been wanting to do since I’ve moved to Oregon was to go to a Portland Timbers game.

Soccer fandom in the North America has quite a way to go before it catches up with most of the rest of the world in terms of popularity, but the Pacific Northwest gives us an idea of the direction that things are headed.

Personally, I’m a Portland Timbers fan, and it’s been a fun year. It helps to be reigning champions of the MLS Cup.

A few weeks ago, I got picked up tickets to see the Timbers play New York FC.

The Sunday of the game was rainy, but it’s not like Portland had never seen rain before. Most of the seats in Providence Park were protected by an awning, so we got to watch the game just to the left of midfield, with a view of the scoreboard to the right and the legendary Timbers Army fan section to our left.

The Timbers match ended up being one of the most fun sporting events I’d been to in a long time.

In spite of all this, that they ended up simply outplayed by NYFC. New York worked more swiftly, took effective shots, and played a very intelligent defense. All that paid off. Unfortunately Portland seemed to be underestimating them throughout most of the game.

They would end up being beat 2-1. I still had quite a good time at the game.

We got to witness at least one goal on our side of things, which meant the ceremonial tree slicing. I also had a chance to see some of my favorite players in live action, namely the Argentine, Diego Valeri. And since food is a pretty big deal to me no matter where I end up going, it’s worth noting that the stadium fare included Tillamook grilled cheese sandwiches, buffalo wing wraps, and some Argentine empanadas (that were double the size of any you’d find in Argentina and about ten times the price.)

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As far as my childhood experience with sports goes, I fit every American stereotype. I played baseball all throughout, dabbled with basketball in middle school, and got just a little taste of football in high school. Unlike many of my peers, I never played bumblebee soccer with all the little kids running in a frenzied cluster to whoever had the ball. Later in life, I’d really wish I had at least a little soccer experience.

When I started traveling a bit more in my twenties, I found myself in a lot of soccer loving lands. I studied abroad in Argentina where soccer is almost religion. I volunteered in the World Cup hosting South Africa. I got to watch Korea draw with Russia in 2014 from a plaza in Seoul and I heart Italy’s team suffer a disappointing first round elimination in 2010 in a Tuscan bar.

I even had the chance to watch a Boca Juniors game from their Buenos Aires stadium, albeit seated in a section for foreigners to be shielded from the legendarily rowdy fan sections.

The love of the beautiful game was infectious.

“Why is soccer not more popular in the U.S?” was a FAQ from international friends.

Perhaps it’s because the format of soccer doesn’t lend itself well to pauses in action, which means advertisers can’t insert commercials into matches the way they could with football or baseball.

But I think that things are starting to slowly shift as soccer grows in American popularity.

More and more of my peers in age have had similar travel experiences and exposures to soccer as we’re becoming the most well-traveled American generation at an early age. Perhaps the best indicator of its future is the rise of the MLS.

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Imagine being a baseball fan back in the Jackie Robinson era, at a time when a guy like Ted Williams could become a national hero not just for hitting .400, but for his service to the country as well. Those were the days where kids actually played stickball in Brooklyn alleyways, if my understanding of the 1940s has any accuracy.

Every sport has had its Golden Era. Not necessarily the era of its inception, but the time when its popularity hit an all-time high.

It’s safe to say that soccer’s Golden Era, at least in the U.S., has yet to come.

The question is, are we on the cusp of it?

One could certainly make the case for that. It’s a very young league, after all.

Many Americans become initially interested in soccer during a World Cup. It makes sense, then, that the idea for Major League Soccer started to get momentum in 1994 when the U.S. hosted the World Cup.

The first season was played in 1996 with ten teams. A few high profile players, including Jorge Campos, joined the league and generated some buzz, but the league struggled to capture interest. It attempted defying international soccer conventions to “Americanize” the game. Games couldn’t end in a draw, they would be resolved in shootouts. Gameplay would end strictly when the clock hit 0:00.

The league seemed doomed to fail. But in 2002 the U.S. had an unlikely amount of success in the World Cup, reaching the quarterfinals and reigniting national interest. Suddenly, interest started to grow again. Teams in Salt Lake, Houston, and Seattle were incorporated by the end of the decade. The league expanded to Canada. David Beckham famously played out the back end of his career in Los Angeles. Some of the rule adjustments were removed.

Major League Soccer continues to grow. The league currently sits at 20 teams, meaning it has some room to catch up with the 30-ish teams that make up most other professional sports leagues in the U.S. It seems to be headed in that direction, though. New York FC and Orlando FC were added as recently as last year. Teams in Atlanta, Minnesota, Los Angeles (a second time), and Miami are set to be added in the next couple seasons, and San Diego, Austin, Sacramento, St. Louis, and Detroit have been rumored as potential candidates for further expansion.

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The best way to get into Major League Soccer is to go to a game in person.

The energy of a stadium full of soccer fans is infectious. Plus, it’s quite different from the experience at most of our other sports, between the singing and scarves and local traditions.

Here are a few reasons why now is the best time to get into the game.

1) Bringing up the US’s profile as a soccer nation.

Let’s face it, for better or worse, competition is one of America’s core values. Our results on the international stage when it comes to soccer, however, aren’t exactly the best example of American competitiveness.

But– that’s not to say it’s impossible for this to change within a couple of World Cup cycles. Already, international stars like Didier Drogba (Montréal), David Villa (New York), and Kaká (Orlando) have committed to at least spend partial seasons in North America. If the MLS continues to grow, it’ll help keep more American-bred players stateside.

And if the main ingredient for competition is having a fierce rival, it’s worth noting that the Chinese Superleague is also attempting a similar rise, also luring in a lot of dominant international stars.

2) Having a “gateway league” to the rest of the sport.

There’s a reason why soccer is known as the beautiful game. It’s been a particularly good year for a few different soccer leagues worldwide. FC Barça proved their value as one of the world’s most financially valuable franchises by winning their sixth title in eight seasons. Leicester City gave us one of this decade’s best underdog stories by winning the Premier League against literal 5000-1 odds.

Of course, when it comes to soccer, there’s a lot going on. There isn’t one league that is clearly the league to follow. There’s the Premier League in the UK, there’s Spain’s La Liga which boasts big money franchises like Barcelona and Real Madrid, and the German Bundesliga.

It helps to have one league to start with, and since it’s local, my take is that the MLS is an awesome gateway to the rest of the soccer world.

3) Being a part of a colorful fan culture

Forget the Seahawks’ 12th man thing, soccer supporters really do add a lot more personality to the game.

Of course, this sometimes crosses a line, like when Argentine fans brought out the pepper spray. Soccer fans are also capable of powerful moments, though, like the German fans who made it clear that they welcomed in refugees during a match.

In Major League Soccer, fan bases are open to some of these more colorful elements. Perhaps Portland’s Timbers Army serves as the best example. Slicing up tree rings for goals scored, singing enough songs during a game to fill out a full set list, and being pretty involved in off-the-field community events are all things you don’t really see from fans of other sports.

It always feels good to be a part of a collective something, and a fan group is no exception.

Baseball, football, and basketball are all alive and well in the U.S., but for those of us who long to be a part of its golden era, it seems that it’s too late. The golden era of soccer is approaching, however, and it’ll be a fun one to participate in.

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