By Ben Edokpayi
America’s Major League Soccer (MLS) is beginning to attract the international attention it deserves.
In Nigeria that attention peaked last year when Nigeria’s Obafemi Martins was credited with the MLS goal of the season. The goal from a virtually impossible angle beat 64 other goals to claim the accolades and also establish Seattle Sounders’Martins as one of the league’s marquee finishers with 17 goals in his second MLS season.
With the arrival this season of great soccer stars like Steven Gerrard (L.A. Galaxy); Kaka (Orlando City); David Villa and Frank Lampard (both for New York City FC), the league which begins next month, is certainly going to be followed beyond the shores of America more than ever before. And that was one of the goals when MLS was established 21 years ago just before the 1994 World Cup in the United States of America. There is even talk that even Tim Howard, one of the best goalkeepers in the world, may be leaving Everton to return to his MLS roots in the new season.
In 1996, when the inaugural MLS game was played in San Jose, I was privileged to cover the proceedings for the Voice of America. On the San Jose Earthquakes squad on that historic day were Nigerian defenders Ben Iroha and Michael Emenalo, who is now a front office staff with Chelsea. Also in the stands on that day was Stephen Keshi, the out-of-contract coach of the Super Eagles, who thought the league was off to a good start during a brief discussion after the Earthquake’s game against D.C. United.
Almost 20 years later MLS has consolidated on that good start to become one of the respected soccer leagues in the world. In 1996, there were 10 teams. But the fact that the league now has 20 teams, with two more teams —Atlanta FC and Los Angeles FC, planned to launch in 2017, indicates how robust and healthy the league is.
From an initial period when the league lost millions and when some matches where played in mostly empty stadiums, the MLS has grown exponentially in attendance and crowds at stadia (specifically built for soccer) now surpass turnouts at National Basketball League and National Hockey league games.
We have to give FIFA kudo’s for having the vision to stage the ’94 World Cup in the USA. One of the goals then was to use the momentum from the world cup to revive professional soccer in the USA.
I recall a media briefing I had attended in 1994 in which Joseph S. Blatter, who was then FIFA General Secretary, had said: “when we made the decision to allow the U.S. to stage the games we had two objectives. We wanted to expose the game to this large country and we wanted to bring the game to the professional level in the U.S. It is an open market.”
Even the great Pele had no doubt that professional soccer would succeed in its second coming to America when I had the opportunity to interview him exclusively at an event arranged by Master Card in Palo Alto. Pele’s optimism then was based on several factors including a long list of multi-national companies who are in support of the sport. He told me then, “This is the first time in the history of soccer they have the merchandise and sponsors all sold out 16 months before the championship.”
Twenty years later I am sure Blatter and Pele are thrilled by the great strides the game has made in the U.S. since then.
Pele, along with great players like Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer, were among a cadre of international players that were recruited in the 70’s to boost the sports in the U.S. But that experiment failed because of financial and other reasons.
“The big mistake the national league did when was I here was they increased the 12 franchises (NASL teams) to 24. Twelve teams was very good. The other mistake is they don’t want to sign contract with Television,” Pele said, emphasizing that “no sport in the U.S. can live without getting support from TV.”
This time around the league has the best coverage on TV you can ask for. America’s diversity has also been a major reason for the success of the sports this time around.
The game is played at the youth level more than any other sport, including American football. In the summer you only need to travel through the soccer complexes of America’s major towns to see the diversity of the teams. As a father ferrying my sons to soccer games across northern California, I remember interacting with parents who had roots from every continent in the world; giving credence that America is indeed the United Nations of Soccer.
This was one of the reasons that spurred the Sacramento Association of Nigerian’s to approach the Nigerian Coach Stephen Keshi to conduct a soccer clinic for the Vacaville Youth Soccer League in northern California in 2013. Although Keshi was enthusiastic about the opportunity, the clinic never took place because of last minute planning hitches.
The diversity of the game at the grassroots level is also reflected in how well the MLS has done to attract professional players from all parts of the globe including Africa.
In addition to Martins, other Nigerian stars in the league include Innocent Emeghara for San Jose Earthquakes; Amobi Okugo for Orlando City; Fanendo Adi for Portland Timbers and Kennedy Igboanike for Chicago Fire.
Prominent African players scheduled to feature in MLS’s new season beginning next month include: Patrick Nyarko, Charles Eloundou, Kofi Opare, Dominic Oduro, Peguy Luyindula, Darlington Nagbe, Abdoulie Mansally , Michael Azira, Danny Mwanga and Michael Lahoud.