European Envy: Where the MLS Comes Up Short

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European Envy: Where the MLS Comes Up Short

Icon Sports MediaYou see the perfectly cut grass.  You see the freshly painted white lines.  You see the stunning colors of the two teams and their respective fans. 

You smell the food, drinks, and sometimes that unpleasant sweaty dude next to you.  

You can easily hear the crowd—only the deaf could tune out this eardrum-shattering noise.

You feel the stadium's vibrations, as thousands of fans anticipate the beginning of the game. 

The music is blasting, the fans are roaring, and the stadium is shaking—it's a dream turned reality.

It is the perfect sporting event.

But what makes some sporting events more energetic than others?

Is it the stadium? The teams involved?

Clearly, the answer is the fans who make up that raucous crowd.

Think about it: All stadiums have grass and white lines—it's probably mandatory for the game to take place.

But the fans, on the other hand—they truly make the experience great. 

If you're an American, like myself, when you imagine the sensory overload just described, you probably pictured yourself at a college football game. 

Am I right?

Icon Sports MediaBut for almost everyone outside of America, the picture painted above is clearly that of a different kind of football match—"soccer", as we call it in the States.

When watching the UEFA Champions League match between the Glasgow Rangers and Barcelona earlier today, I thought to myself: "I really hope that American soccer will one day have an atmosphere similar to this."

But the longer I thought about the possibility of such a scenario, the more my hopes faded—back into the reality of being an American soccer fan.

You might ask why American soccer can't reach such heights.

The answer is simple: density. 

Take the English Premier League (EPL), for example.  It consists of a total of 20 teams which make up one of the most popular sporting leagues in the world. 

Twenty teams may not seem like a lot, considering the NFL has 32 teams.

But, take a quick look at this table:

England                                             North Carolina

50,319 square miles of area                 48,710 square miles of area

20 teams in the EPL                            1 team in the NFL

We have to remember that England is physically a much smaller country than the United States is.  In fact, the state of North Carolina is similar in size to the whole nation of England, yet has only one professional football team, compared to England's twenty.

Imagine the entire NFC being located only in cities in North Carolina.  There would be 16 teams in 49,000 square miles.

Or imagine the entire ACC and SEC of college football's Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) all being located within the state of North Carolina.  

It's also important to remember that the EPL isn't the only league of its type.  There are numerous others that are just as competitive around the world—Bundesliga, Serie A, SuperLiga, Primera Liga, and Ligue 1, just to name a few.

It's almost difficult to imagine, but fans are able to travel to many games simply by hopping on a train or bus. 

Imagine being able to see all of your team's games, instead of just the home games. 

Imagine getting off work and catching a bus to Raleigh, in order to watch your Winston-Salem Broncos play the Raleigh Buccaneers.  It's almost incomprehensible as to how great that scenario would be. 

No more TiVo or Direct TV.  No more ESPN Classic needed to save the day.

True fans would have a realistic opportunity to watch their team play literally every league game, weekend or not.

But it's just not possible in America.  America is far too spread out to even consider this a possibility, unless of course there are several thousand NFL teams in the future. 

Even so, it would defeat the purpose—because your Winston-Salem Broncos would most likely still play across the country, rather than just within the state of North Carolina.

And I'm not suggesting a massive NFL expansion—not at all.

So, after looking at the EPL, can American leagues compare, despite the country being much less densely populated?

Yes and no.

The NFL clearly has its business down to a science, as do the MLB, NBA, and even college football.

The MLS? Not so much. 

Major League Soccer has been the laughing stock of the American sports world ever since its inception in 1996, typically being mentioned in the same breath with terms  like "project" and "work-in-progress." 

But it has been getting better. 

In 2003, the MLS began using aggregates to decide playoff winners, much like major tournaments and leagues in Europe.

Foreign players are beginning to choose to come to the MLS rather than stay in Europe—David Beckham being clearly the biggest name.

Some American-born players (you know who you are, Cobi Jones) are even deciding to be called strictly by their first name—or, at least have their first name on their jerseys, à la Ronaldinho, Cafu, Ronaldo, Dida, and pretty much the rest of the Brazilian National Team's roster.

Small steps such as these may seem silly to outsiders, but to the "football" community, every little bit matters.

As much as soccer is a game of skill and passion, it's one of respect as well.  And the MLS is slowly gaining respect, little by little.

With the upcoming MLS Playoffs and the MLS Cup, the American version of primetime soccer will be on display once again. 

And, once again, it will be in the shadows of American football.

D.C. United will face the Chicago Fire on Thursday, October 25th at 8:30 PM EST on ESPN2 to kick off the 2007 MLS Playoffs.

At the same time, No. 2 Boston College will be squaring off against No. 8 Virginia Tech on ESPN, while FOX will be airing Game 2 of the 2007 World Series between the Colorado Rockies and Boston Red Sox.

It seems as if the MLS just can't catch a break.  Thursday is just another prime example of how the MLS isn't playing just for trophies and advertisements—it's playing for pride, TV airtime, and most importantly, attention.

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