METERLS is entering its 28th season and the popularity of soccer in the US is evident by the thousands of players playing, as well as the popularity of the Premier League, Liga MX… and even a team from the north of Welsh. But many US soccer teams, including those in MLS, can sometimes fail to break through the wall of sports awareness in their own backyards.
That obstacle is evident in the two largest cities in the United States. While LA and New York City both have large soccer fan bases, it’s debatable whether their MLS teams are part of the cities’ identity.
For much of 2022, New York City had a major league champion, not that you knew it though. New York City FC’s MLS Cup victory in December 2021 was largely ignored amid discussions of New York’s MLB championship drought. When the New York Giants won the Super Bowl in February 2012, the victory headlined the local television news for days. Meanwhile, the NYC FC title struggled to displace the Jets and Giants in the sports update. The Giants were also granted a ticker parade down Broadway after their title win, while NYC FC was given a smaller reception at City Hall, though it came at a time when the city discouraged large public gatherings while was recovering from the Covid pandemic.
The same is true of the print media. In May 2021, former New York Post columnist Mike Vaccaro wondered which team would end the city’s title drought. He didn’t even mention NYC FC, a team he would do seven months later. In August of this year, the same publication go to article celebrating the impressive performance of the Mets during the 2022 season.
“Just take a quick look at New York,” the article read. “Invaded by people who wish their major teams were operating as efficiently as the Mets are right now.”
All of this forgot that NYC FC, which sometimes plays at the Mets’ Citi Field, was the reigning champion of Major League Soccer.
The mood was similar surrounding LAFC’s MLS Cup victory in 2022. Coverage of the victory in Los Angeles’ flagship newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, was limited to a few stories, while the loss of the Dodgers in the playoffs a few weeks earlier had had general coverage.
In-depth coverage and analysis of baseball, football, and hockey is understandable and expected—it’s been a part of the fabric of both cities for decades. And the titles for LAFC and NYC FC brought joy to thousands of fans of the teams. But the chance to shout about the success of a major league championship in these cities was spurned and, in some cases, ignored outright, rather than positively embraced.
The situation is different in other parts of the United States. LAFC’s opponent in the MLS Cup final, the Philadelphia Union, enjoys regular coverage in the city’s newspaper, the Inquirer. The preparation for the Union’s appearance in the MLS Cup coincided with the arrival of the Phillies in the World Series.
“The Union has definitely broken through, but it’s not as important as the Phillies being in the World Series,” says Jonah Gardner of the sports data website, SportsReference. “When people talk about how Philadelphia sports is having a moment, they mention the Phillies and the World Series and the Union in [MLS] Cup and the Eagles [reaching the Super Bowl]. They perform together with others as part of the city’s sport.”
It helps that the Union’s Jim Curtin, who was named MLS Coach of the Year in 2022, is from the area and knows the Philadelphia sports scene. This leads to the kind of cross-sport promotion that can help football clubs in multi-team cities.
“The way this team has risen up in the community and is talking more in the media — a lot of work has gone into that, from our front office to our players,” Curtin said in the lead up to the 2023 season.
“It is deserved because we are a fun team and it is exciting to watch them. We are young, we have great players and we have been successful on the pitch. So that’s a recipe for Philly. A recipe for fans to fall in love with your group, and I’m so proud of all the growth we’ve had in that area.”
As Curtin mentioned, MLS teams can do a good job of marketing. And US soccer can deliver exciting stories when space and resources are given to those who document them.
The 2022 US Open Cup FinalFor example, MLS pitted Orlando City against the Sacramento Republic in the USL Championship, the de facto second division of American soccer. It was a unique occasion in the US sports scene because a major title was contested by teams not from different conferences or divisions, but from different levels.
“The US Open Cup final definitely generated interest in the area,” says Austin David, a soccer writer for the Orlando Sentinel. “They sold out the stadium [Exploria Stadium, Orlando] and the club did a good job of marketing it, reaching all the local outlets and really building interest.
“Other Orlando sports teams also sent Orlando City good luck messages for the finals, so it got more attention than usual, but Orlando is usually mostly football and NBA oriented. Aside from the Orlando Magic, Orlando City is the only other professional team in town, but it is still sometimes overshadowed by high school and college football.”
Orlando isn’t the only MLS city where college soccer is popular. But in some cities, college sports continue to be well supported alongside soccer, rather than necessarily overshadowing it.
One such city is Austin, where, despite only joining MLS in 2021, Austin FC attracts considerable local coverage and support.
“Austin has a very strong press corps that follows Austin FC and there are a lot of fans,” says Austin writer Phil West. The front. “Part of it is that it really is the only major sports franchise in Austin. Do you have the [NBA’s] San Antonio Spurs, who apparently represent Austin. But while they’re going to play a couple of games here in April, most of their games are in San Antonio, which is 80 miles south.
“Obviously with football, which is kind of king in Texas, you have Dallas and Houston, and particularly in Austin you have a great Dallas Cowboys fan base, but before Austin FC came along, the University of Texas was really the only major sports team here.
“For a while there’s been this notion that Austin is a college town, but now it’s really a major cosmopolitan metropolitan city. Austin FC has filled this need for a team to call their own.”
No two cities are the same, and soccer’s popularity varies across the US, but there’s a sense in the country that soccer is a global sport, not an American one.
Part of the reason for this is that although the history of soccer in the US dates back to the 1800s, it can be difficult for a major league that emerged in the 1990s to tap into that storied history. Some clubs, like those in soccer hotbeds like Portland and Seattle, can do a better job because their teams’ origins predate MLS.
“I like MLS right up to ’90s indie rock,” says West. “It’s like waiting for Nirvana to release the Nevermind moment. And that could be happening with the World Cup here in 2026, with this Apple TV deal, and with more and more stars coming.”
Just as the 1994 World Cup helped create MLS, there is hope that the 2026 tournament could take the league to the next level. To do so, you need to convert association football and soccer fans into MLS fans. And national media treating MLS and the Open Cup as they would other major leagues wouldn’t be bad either.