Watch out NFL and NCAA fans, football will soon be overtaken by soccer as the most popular sport in the United States. The growing number of problems plaguing the NFL and NCAA for the past decade such as concussions, domestic violence and confusing rule changes are slowly driving the population to lose interest in football and gravitate toward a sport that has constant action, takes less time to complete and is not difficult to follow.
Enter Major League Soccer (MLS), who will soon be the paramount league in American sports. MLS, rather, soccer as a whole, does not have the drama and complications that come with American football. There is no fancy padding and training equipment, it does not have complicated rules and is focused on the game rather than commercialization.
The NFL is a multi-billion dollar entertainment behemoth that has owned a day of the week for over 50 years, and they are obviously not going anywhere anytime soon. To say the barely 20-year-old Major League Soccer will become more popular than the NFL is a bold statement, to say the least, but there are indications that it could happen.
Twenty-one years ago the United States saw a fledgling 10-team Major League Soccer take the field for the first time. The start-up teams played in massive, hollow NFL stadiums with tens of thousands of empty seats. Teams tried moving to another location, others changed their name while some went completely under, but MLS eventually started gaining traction. Over the course of the next 20 seasons, MLS grew at an average of just over one franchise every two years. As teams became more stable, they left the conventional NFL stadium and constructed their own soccer-specific stadiums, which are better suited for soccer’s wider field (knows as a pitch to soccer players) than the narrower NFL field. MLS now governs 22 franchises across 20 cities and two continents, with more expansion planned in the years to come. According to Don Garber, Commissioner of MLS, there are currently 12 cities bidding over four more MLS expansion franchises, which would grow the league to 28 teams, in the near future. Expanding to 28 teams would bring the league on par with the ‘Big 4’ leagues (NFL, MLB, NHL, NBA) that all have 30 teams, save the NFL, which has 32.
Obviously, the cities that are not lucky enough to secure one of those four franchises are not going to simply give up. They will most likely keep petitioning the MLS and making bids for a new franchise. With four new teams already a guarantee for the future of MLS, they are continuing to expand at breakneck speed.
The NFL lately has become a hotbed of controversy on and off the field. Most importantly, from a fan’s perspective, the game is getting less enjoyable despite the talent in the league seeming to get better every year. While watching the game, fans should not have to struggle to determine complicated rules such as differentiating between defensive holding and pass interference. Rule changes over the past few years such as hits on a defenseless receiver, pass interference, roughing the passer, are necessary, yet unpopular changes to the game. Fans do not like additional interruptions to games and want the rules they are accustomed to. Soccer, on the other hand, has had their rules cemented in the game since it began. The rules are simple: play the ball, do not use your hands and not be caught offside (behind the very back defender). These rules are much easier to follow, and easy to learn. There are no helmets, chinstraps, big foam pads to practice hitting, like in football, there is simply a ball, cleats and shin guards in soccer.
New rule changes, replay reviews and commercial breaks make a football game drag on for over three hours, according to The Wall Street Journal. Fans will often see a touchdown scored, and not see any action for eight minutes. Following the score, television networks will cut to commercial break, tune back in to see the scoring team boot the kickoff into the end zone for a touchback, go to commercial break again, and finally come back to the game, with nearly ten minutes separating the plays from scrimmage. Soccer, on the other hand, has constant action for 45 minutes straight. There is no getting up for a beer after a goal in soccer, because the teams go right back to playing immediately following the goal celebration. There are no television timeouts interrupting play in soccer, which ensures the game is completed in two hours, like always. The same cannot be said about football.
The city of Atlanta has something special with Atlanta United’s inaugural soccer season. It is one more milestone of the MLS that is slowly making it the most popular league in the United States.
This change is not going to happen overnight, but eventually the United States will be a soccer country, even in the football dominated south. Football will still be around, football will still be popular, the Patriots will probably still be hated, and the SEC will probably still be the best conference in NCAA. However, ten years from now, do not be surprised to see more people in Atlanta donning red and black Atlanta United kits rather than Atlanta Falcons jerseys.