The crowd of 109,318 that gathered to watch the Manchester United-Real Madrid friendly Saturday provided a clear message for Major League Soccer to consider.ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The biggest crowd to ever watch a soccer game on American soil didn’t catch a Major League Soccer or U.S. national team game. No, 109,318 converged in Michigan Stadium on Saturday for an international friendly with nothing on the line, only the promise of a glimpse at world-class players playing for two of the most popular teams on the planet.
So how did organizers of the Guinness International Champions Cup friendly pull off such a historic moment, and do so in a college town with school out of session and in a location almost 200 miles away from the nearest pro team?
It was pretty simple. They brought two of the most high-profile clubs in the world to the middle of America and watched as the masses came together to create a special moment that perfectly illustrated the country’s growing love for soccer in a way that TV rating numbers for the World Cup couldn’t quite do.
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Walking through the hordes of mostly red Manchester United jerseys, along with a healthy number of Real Madrid jerseys, you could find few U.S. shirts and even fewer MLS ones. There was a surprisingly diverse selection of MLS jerseys in the sea of humanity, with the likes of the Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, LA Galaxy, New York Red Bulls, Houston Dynamo, Philadelphia Union, Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire.
Just how many actual MLS fans were in attendance is anyone’s guess, but it isn’t a stretch to assume that a majority of the 109,318 fans who filled the Big House were not regular followers of the country’s pro soccer league.
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The reality of American soccer fandom is that there are two strains of American fans — those who follow MLS closely and those who feed their hunger for the sport by following European or Latin American club soccer. When you divide the country’s soccer fan base, you wind up with a league still trying to establish itself. Bring all the soccer fan cliques together in this country and you wind up with a blossoming force that could wind up second only to football in America.
Just how do you bring all of those fans together to support American teams in numbers the way they have come out this summer and supported clubs from Europe and Mexico? The simple answer is by improving the on-field product to help bring the quality of play in MLS closer to the level fans of Europe’s top teams are used to watching on TV.
Closing that gap isn’t a simple process, nor will it be a quick one, but the most obvious first step is to spend more money. With the MLS Collective Bargaining Agreement set to expire after this season, the league is in position to be able to significantly increase the amount teams can spend on players.
Does this mean MLS teams will compete for players with the likes of Real Madrid and Manchester United, who spend eight-figure transfers on a regular basis? No, not quite. But increasing the salary cap considerably, from around $3 million to as much as $6 million, would allow teams to improve their rosters and sign more quality players.
Such a sizable jump in salary cap would be a bit of a departure from the league’s steady but slow approach to growth. But with World Cup TV ratings records being shattered and large crowds taking in international friendlies across the country, there is mounting evidence that there is a large and growing audience of American soccer fans — a group MLS currently only taps into a small portion of.
Make no mistake: MLS is growing and improving, and we are seeing more and more signs of the league gaining a stronger foothold in the country's sporting landscape. That said, MLS can clearly do more, and making a larger commitment to player salaries in the new CBA will be a significant step toward helping the league take another major step forward.
There will probably never be a day when crowds like the one we saw Saturday at the Big House are gathering for MLS matches, but what we could see in years down the road are large crowds made up of larger percentages of MLS fans. There is no more denying the fact that this country’s soccer fan base is growing exponentially, but there is also no more denying that MLS needs to do more to start attracting a larger portion of that growing base.
GOAL USA’S MLS WEEKLY AWARDS
Player of the Week: Robbie Keane. The Irish star was magical in the Galaxy’s 3-1 thumping of the Portland Timbers, scoring twice.
Rookie of the Week: Tesho Akindele. The FC Dallas striker is quietly beginning to make it a two-horse race for MLS Rookie of the Year, and his game-winning goal in FC Dallas’ 1-0 win vs. Chivas USA has Akindele moving even closer to frontrunner Harrison Shipp.
Team of the Week: LA Galaxy. Bruce Arena’s side gets the nod for the second straight week after thrashing the Timbers and edging ever closer to first-place Seattle in the Western Conference standings.