In the midst of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the MLS season, and our EiF Road Trip Project, Nick Hawkins discusses the past, present, and future of soccer in the United States with MLS Executive Vice President of Communications, Dan Courtemanche.
Soccer is a global sport, and there is no doubt that the sport’s status in the United States is growing increasingly prominent with each passing year. As more and more teams, money, fans, and quality players enter the MLS scene, one wonders when the growth will stop and how long it will be before MLS is among the top leagues in the world. At the same time, the United States National Team is becoming more and more competitive and the US has proven to be among the best locations in the world for hosting international and club tournaments. The Copa América Centenario took place in the United States last year, the International Champions Cup returns to the States this summer for the fifth straight year, and right now we are in the middle of yet another US-hosted Gold Cup.
Like most, MLS Executive Vice President of Communications Dan Courtemanche is enjoying the spectacle of the Gold Cup and its many “compelling storylines.” Courtemanche points out that the tournament is not only a great tournament for USMNT fandom, but also for fans of the MLS: “We have 51 players competing for many different countries in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, and it’s great to see a young player like Alphonso Davies, a 16-year-old player with the Vancouver Whitecaps, lighting it up for Canada.” Indeed, MLS players have been among the top performers in the tournament all over the field, with Alphonso Davies leading the tournament in scoring and MLS defensive stalwarts such as FC Dallas’ Maynor Figueroa putting in shining displays at the back.
The performance of MLS players in the Gold Cup is perhaps an indication of just how far America’s top flight soccer league has come since its formation. Dan Courtemanche was there at the beginning, when the league consisted only of 10 teams, and he has been with the MLS for 19 of its 22 seasons, so he is as well poised as any to deliver insight on the development of the league. He says, “When the league first started, we were a growing soccer nation… but I have to tell you, you look at all the metrics now, you see all the fans traveling to the World Cup US National Team matches or Major League Soccer, and we have become a prominent soccer nation on the global scale.”
“We had 10 clubs. Now, fast forward to our 22nd season, we have 12 markets vying for 4 expansion teams! So we have more markets vying for expansion than we had [teams] when the league started.”
– Dan Courtemanche
The growth of the MLS has been, as Courtemanche described it, “explosive” over the course of the past several years, and there are many people that deserve credit for the progress the league has made. Dan first highlights the role that the fans and the populations of the US and Canada have played in this exponential development: “Those who grew up with the game have now become decision-makers… People who are chief marketing officers, people who are television producers or newspaper editors, or potential MLS team owners.” In addition to these decision makers and executives, one should also keep in mind the millennials who were raised to love soccer and the impact of the diverse population of the United States. Courtemanche continues, “The census director for the United States said back in 2000 that we were the first country made up of all the countries throughout the world, and it really is true and it really has funneled into the popularity of the global game.”
Dan also recognizes some of the people who helped to give the MLS a helping hand at the beginning as hugely impactful in its expansion and development. He name drops several of these figures, including Phil Anschutz, Lamar Hunt, and members of the Kraft family. Without these crucial visionaries who “carried the league on their shoulders during the early days,” it is unlikely that the league would be experiencing the amount of success that it is. Nowadays, Courtemanche describes the ownership group of the MLS as “diverse” in thought: “You have individuals or groups that own soccer clubs throughout the world or professional sports team here in North America or sports and entertainment entities… The dynamic we have in our boardroom when it comes to growing this sport and developing Major League Soccer is incredible.”
“The dynamic we have in our boardroom when it comes to growing this sport and developing Major League Soccer is incredible.”
– Dan Courtemanche
After the establishment of the MLS as a league that was going to stick around, another transition began to occur across the league: the gradual switch to soccer-specific stadiums. Courtemanche says, “When the league started, we were playing in venues like Giants Stadium and the Rose Bowl and the Horseshoe in Columbus, Ohio, all tremendous gridiron football stadiums, but they were not the appropriate environment for professional soccer. Now we have 16 stadiums built with soccer in mind, and in the coming years we’ll have 20.” Dan cites this change as another one of the many factors that has contributed to the growth of the MLS, saying that the stadiums “provide the appropriate environment for our fans to enjoy Major League Soccer matches, international soccer matches, and the beautiful game in general.”
With the building of soccer-specific stadiums has come the establishment of excellent training facilities, which simultaneously attract better players to the MLS and allow for the production of even better players from within the MLS youth system. Courtemanche says, “We’ve now seen more than 200 players coming out of our youth academies signing professional contracts with the first team, often getting valuable experience with a USL club or affiliate, such as Alphonso Davies did up in Vancouver.” As any soccer fan will know, a youth player breaking through to the first team and finding success at the highest level is among the most exciting spectacles in the soccer world, and developing quality youth systems is a key to the prosperity of any major league.
“Having those soccer stadiums where those young players are playing in the shadows of that great venue and aspiring to play in that stadium has really contributed to our success.”
– Dan Courtemanche
Of course, another characteristic of all the best leagues in world soccer is the presence of a domestic cup competition, and in the United States the domestic tournament is called the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. It is a storied competition with a history of over 100 years, and it is actually the oldest annual team sports tournament in the country. This year, the US Open Cup has been particularly interesting, and the main story has been the cinderella story of FC Cincinnati, a non-MLS side. In the Round of 16, the USL club defeated a full strength Chicago Fire side in dramatic style, with goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt saving all three spot kicks in a penalty shootout in Cincinnati. Their quarterfinal match against NASL side Miami FC was postponed due to weather, but whichever team wins that match will host the New York Red Bulls in the semifinal.
Dan Courtemanche cites the example of the FC Cincinnati vs. Chicago Fire match to make two points: firstly, that the US Open Cup is a competition that MLS teams take very seriously. He says, “They want to win. They all approach it a little differently and have to balance the Open Cup with their league schedule, but it’s a priority for our clubs and I think you’re seeing that, especially when the Chicago Fire travelled to Cincinnati and you see someone like Bastian Schweinsteiger, who’s won a World Cup and a Champions League and many other trophies throughout his decorated career, playing the entire match for the Chicago Fire in an Open Cup game down in Cincinnati.” On the other side of the coin, Courtemanche says that the US Open Cup highlights the success of soccer in the United States at all levels, not just the MLS: “To have two teams still in the running for the Open Cup is extremely exciting.” It is exciting not only for the players and the clubs, but for the fans as well. Courtemanche states, “It’s a good reminder to all soccer fans to support your local club.”
“Professional soccer is thriving throughout this country. Whether it’s the USL, the NASL, PDL, the NPSL, you’re seeing some very passionate crowds and markets.”
– Dan Courtemanche
Indeed, support for local clubs, MLS and non-MLS alike, is constantly growing across the country, and the ultimate goal of many of these less-established teams is to become a part of the MLS. Expansion teams such as Atlanta United and NYCFC are enjoying huge success in the MLS within merely one or two seasons of joining the league, and everyone wants to get in on the action. Courtemanche says, “There’s no doubt in our mind that there are dozens of places across this country that can support an MLS team… Professional soccer is thriving throughout this country, whether it’s the USL, the NASL, PDL, the NPSL, you’re seeing some very passionate crowds and markets.”
With the league already at 22 teams, however, there surely aren’t too many spots left before the league becomes too large. In regard to the current size of the league and the massive interest in expansion, Courtemanche sheds some light on the league’s plans: “I can tell you that our commissioner Don Garber and our ownership group is planning on 28 teams. We’ve got 12 different markets that have submitted formal applications for 4 expansions teams. That would get us up to 28 teams that we’ll see come into the league over the next 5 seasons. We’ll announce 2 of those new expansion teams by the end of this year, and then we’ll announce two more at a later date.”
Once the expansion to 28 teams is complete, though, what are the next steps for MLS? Courtemanche and many other people involved in Major League Soccer have said in the past that the goal is to make the MLS one of the top leagues in the world. According to Courtemanche, the factors that determine the league’s prominence are “the quality of the play and the competition on the field,” “the relevance of our clubs and how popular they are in our markets,” “the passion of our fans and how we engage with them,” and “the value of our enterprise.” The MLS has certainly improved in all of these areas in recent times. European and South American stars such as Sebastian Giovinco and Giovani Dos Santos are playing in the MLS in their peak years, every club is growing more popular in their respective cities, the fanbase is growing exponentially both in quantity and in passion, and the MLS is prospering as a business. In regards to the business end of things, Courtemanche says that the Forbes report of 2016 values MLS clubs at an average of $185 million.
“When it comes to facilities and infrastructure, we are arguably among the top leagues in the world.”
– Dan Courtemanche
Ultimately, the most important thing for everyday people and fans is probably the players that they get to watch play for their clubs. There are two main types of players that people want to see, one being high-status international players who come to the MLS as their league of choice during the prime of their career, and the other being the best homegrown American players. On the balance of these two contingents, Courtemanche says that it is important to have both: “We’re always going to be a league that is focused on the American and Canadian player, and slightly more than 60% of the players in Major League Soccer are either from the United States or Canada, but this is a global sport and we’re always going to have incredible international talent in Major League Soccer.” Courtemanche stresses that it in order to keep fans engaged and interested, the MLS must boast “talented, dynamic players in their prime” and also “retain the core of the US National Team and the Canadian National Team.”
In the USMNT’s most recent World Cup qualifying match against Mexico, 13/23 players called up by Bruce Arena were from the MLS, including the captain Michael Bradley, so it seems that MLS players are still vital to the country’s international success. It is also important to note that the presence of MLS players in future USMNT lineups may grow still more, since MLS youth academies are churning out more and more talented players. Courtemanche says, “When it comes to the young players, we’re developing through our academy systems many talented players, and the vast, vast majority of those players are signing and choosing MLS as their league of choice.” Although some of the best American players will undoubtedly choose to go abroad, such as Christian Pulisic at Borussia Dortmund, the success of USMNT regulars such as Michael Bradley, Kellyn Acosta, and Matt Besler suggests that the MLS is just as viable of a destination.
“The business structure that we have in Major League Soccer that does not include promotion and relegation is part of what has made the league so successful throughout the years.”
– Dan Courtemanche
One structural difference that separates many European leagues from the MLS is that the MLS does not have a relegation/promotion system in place. Whether or not the European format should be implemented in the MLS is a hotly debated topic, but Courtemanche makes some convincing points about the benefits of the current league format. He says, “The business structure that we have in Major League Soccer that does not include promotion and relegation is part of what has made the league so successful throughout the years.” Courtemanche explains that in the early stages of forming a league, those who invest and make the commitment to running a club need some reassurance that they will be able to stay in the league and that their money will not go to waste: “As a young league, when you’re building infrastructure you need to ensure that there is the opportunity for growth. And as part of that growth you need to also make sure that those who are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in stadiums and other infrastructure and competition and youth academies and player compensation and coach compensation [are] well aware of what their future is.”
With the MLS still growing and expanding, the absence of promotion and relegation is still quite beneficial. Courtemanche highlights again that there are 12 markets vying for 4 expansion spots in the MLS, and he says, “If those 12 markets looked at our league and saw it as a league where within the next few years they could be relegated to the second division, it would be very, very challenging for them to build the infrastructure necessary to have a Major League Soccer club.” So it seems that, at least until expansion is complete and the new clubs have had enough time to settle in, that the MLS will push forward with their current business model and league structure.
“We’re only 22 seasons old, and certainly those leagues throughout the world that have promotion and relegation have been around for many, many decades, and in some cases more than 100 years.”
– Dan Courtemanche
Another thing that separates the MLS from top divisions in other countries is the presence of playoffs at the end of the season. This is another point of criticism that the MLS has received, but again Courtemanche defends the MLS league format well: “We’re firm believers in the playoff system. We believe it creates tremendous excitement, and it also creates compelling matches later in the year… We’ve seen that it provides great entertainment for soccer fans throughout North America and the world.” Additionally, Courtemanche points out that other leagues throughout the world have even started to adopt the MLS way of doing things: “Since Major League Soccer started, many other leagues have incorporated playoffs into their systems… Maybe something here in North America is catching on worldwide!”
The main benefit that playoffs bring to the MLS is excitement, and the more excitement there is, the more fans will want to watch the games. Perhaps it is down to this excitement that the MLS’ fanbase is as impressive as it is, and yet there is still much more room for growth. Courtemanche cites a statistic that says there are nearly 80 million soccer fans in the United States, a number which is larger than the entire populations of Spain and England. Courtemanche says, “There are a lot of soccer fans who we look at, and we look to engage with them and really see how they can become fans of MLS clubs, and it goes back to providing dynamic talent and competition on the field, the appropriate environment in soccer stadiums, great broadcasts through our partners at Univision, Fox Sports, and ESPN, and up in Canada with TSN, and candidly throughout the world. We’re in 170 different countries on a weekly basis with our international broadcast.”
“Professional soccer has become extremely popular, especially with a millennial audience. According to the ESPN sports poll from Rich Luker, it generally ranks second behind the National Football League when it comes to consuming a sport, the overall popularity… Professional soccer is generally tied with the NBA, behind the NFL, among the audience that is 30 and younger in the US and Canada.”
– Dan Courtemanche
One pretty sure way to drive soccer forward in the United States would be to host a World Cup, and Courtemanche says that the country’s bid for the 2026 World Cup looks “positive.” After the smashing success of the Copa América Centenario in the US last summer, it is clear that the United States are one of the most equipped countries in the world to host international soccer tournaments. In fact, as Courtemanche reminds us, the last World Cup hosted in the US was a huge hit as well: “The World Cup in ’94 remains the highest attended World Cup ever on average. More than 66,000 fans per game attended that World Cup and that’s based on the incredible stadiums that we have in this country and the passionate soccer fans that we have.”
“There is no doubt in our minds that a World Cup hosted by the United States, Canada, and Mexico would be the most successful World Cup in the history of the sport.”
– Dan Courtemanche
If the United States’ bid for the 2026 World Cup is successful, it would not only be a huge boost to the sport of soccer in the United States, but it would also be the first example of a historic transition in soccer’s most famous tournament: the transition from a 32-team field to a 48-team field. Courtemanche says, “To have that type of infrastructure in our country, along with our great partners in Mexico and Canada, would provide the opportunity for a tremendous World Cup that will capture the imagination of not just sports fans in those three countries, but certainly worldwide.” Indeed, American soccer fans can be looked at as an example for sports fans across the world. Referring to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Courtemanche says, “The second country behind Brazil when it came to fan attendance in that country for the World Cup was the United States, once again reminding people that we are a prominent soccer nation.”
If the World Cup were to be held in the United States, it would provide a massive boost not just to the US National Team and the MLS, but to all levels of soccer in the United States. Every American soccer fan will be following the development of the United States’ World Cup proposal with fingers crossed, and if it does happen, the country, and indeed the entire world, will be in for a treat. And who knows? Maybe by then, the MLS will have achieved its goal of becoming one of the top leagues in the world.