MLS will be bigger than NFL, Eventually

One day in the future MLS will be bigger than the NFL, a silly statement today, a crazy one in the past, but more plausible every year
by Mike Firpo   |   Friday, March 09, 2012

MLS will be bigger than NFL, Eventually

I was young, excited and oh so sweaty. Just completing my gameday work for a match down in Houston, I decided to grab one of my guys and use our ego-enlarging credentials to move about until we found the two most empty, remote and unlikely to be purchased seats in the stadium. Once we found the right ones, we parked our butts and reveled in the atmosphere, ignoring the height-induced bloody noses and just smiling ear to ear, happy to be part of the game.

We didn’t know it, but we were subconscious converts to The World’s Game, in one of its last frontiers of popular rejection. We were, one of the last waves of youthful missionaries for the game of soccer, in America. Of course though, we had no idea.

Nor did our youthful ignorance guide us well, as we unwittingly and unluckily succumbed to overwhelming odds by sitting next to a Mexican-American couple, with a pension for locally adored, Texan Rules Footy.

The late 30s couple we’re probably just excited to have company in the boonies so they struck up a conversation with the two vivacious youngsters in front of them. My buddy was entirely too handsome. That came in handy, not just for my dating stats back then, but even for striking up small localized chats like we were about to engage.

We learned quickly that both their families had emigrated from Mexico but lived in the area for multiple generations. They were Americans, with Mexican last names, but very much Texan, adapted and assimilated in the way that multi-generation immigrants do, by melting into the wider Ameri-majority and losing much of their forbearer’s culture and linguistics.

I’m sure I would have been okay with Grandma’s recipes being forgotten due to time, little use of the mother Spanish tongue and other loss of culture. I mean, I had seen it growing up in Brooklyn and Manhattan with Italian-Americans, Greeks, Irish, Persians, Polish and just about every immigrant sub-community you can name.

But to the young soccer-idealistic me back then, it was far worse and more shocking than Americanized yellow-cheese enchiladas or Español-less Latinos. I came to find out, to my horror, that grandpa’s futbol had been supplanted with … gringo football.

What?!? Uckkkk.

The infant MLS I cared so much for, the dreams for expansion, the hopes of future non-gridiron-lined fields, the burgeoning national teams, the statistics about the massive Latino love affair with the sport, even in America. All … smashed. Hope for change, replaced with disgust for stagnancy.

I tried not to let on with my disappointment though.

The male honestly did seem genuinely happy to be at the game, but was a bit reserved. His spouse however, was an alpha female, and at first seemed tickled to be there. After a few moments though it was clear this could have been any event, sports or otherwise, that created the excitement in her.

After we not so inadvertently flashed our “creds” a few times and dropped some names even more, they both got that we worked in soccer and loved it so much. That’s where it went all pear-shaped. She started the gridiron gloating in earnest. A bit mocking with a dash of bully and a tinge of superiority, all served up on a plate of prideful hospitality, much to our discomfort.

The conversation started out jovial during the introductory phase. She got a kick out of constantly allaying that the domestic variety of football was, is and will always be – the biggest, in Texas, the USA and, maybe from her vantage point, the world. This was painful for me and my buddy.

[It’s important to note the time period here. This was back in the earliest days of the MLS, where to be a domestic soccer fan in a big American city, was about as cool and common as wasting time on that dangerous internet thing. MLS fans in public would walk the local streets of America with heads held up extra high, eyes looking keenly in the distance for the rare sighting of someone like themselves: a MetroStars jersey, a weird Burn horse on fire or the heralded fan of the all-mighty DC United. To see another soul with a soccer jersey was the highlight of the week back then. In the odd case you spied one, you walked out of your way to get to them or converse about “soccer” or you at minimum made sure to make eye contact and do the “nod” of the early MLS fan illuminati. It was a small marginalized mix of discussion board users and Euro-flaunting wannabes back in those days. The older disgruntled NASL fans disowned you, the European ‘football’ fans mocked you and the fans of American sports just simply ignored you. There were so few of the kind back then that in order to feel validated you would chat with the most socially inept, bookish or crass snobs. Meeting the humans behind the odd usernames and then accepting that these were your sporting ‘kin’ was happiness and self-revulsion wrapped up in one. “I met my peers, yes.” Followed by: “I met my peers, oh my God.” You carried on though, because you loved soccer and this new American league of the game you adored. Maybe subconsciously you wanted MLS to grow up, as fast as possible, so that you were just one of the pack again, you didn’t have to do missionary work and you could be part of a majority, sitting on a couch or in a pub and just simply enjoying.]

My friend was a former professional player sidelined with a bad knee. Having grown up in a border town, he understood the futbol loving Mexicans from both sides and the assimilated football loving Texans as well. He had seen and heard this before, but I hadn’t and took it worse and more to heart.

The conversation eroded and got a bit sharp as she really didn’t want to stop, even when we gave signals we didn’t want to argue soccer versus football today.

I was on my best behavior, this was still work afterall, but between the heat, the sweat, the adrenaline, the atmosphere, the incessant prodding and the temptuosness of my age I just said it. I blurted out probably the most blasphemous statement outside of defaming the big guy … Sam Houston … that you could possibly do in Texas.

I turned around, pushed out my chest, looked her dead in the eyes and said:

“In 50 years, soccer will be bigger than the NFL or football in the United States … and Texas too!”


Her beady eyes smiling with the idea that she provoked us into a fight, got my goat and won the day. Turned to downright contempt for what she just heard.

My buddy looked at me, he might have even agreed, but I realized by his face, I was alone in this theory. The dopey husband, shaking his head, went back to his beer and crowd-gazing.

It was me, her and this bold statement.

She said some points, rolled her eyes a half dozen times, sucked her teeth, smirked and gloated a bit more about how big her game was. I defended my sport to the best of my ability, but my arguments, because of the nature of MLS back then, were based purely on theory and belief.

To her, I was an insane young Yankee. She knew she had won the argument. I turned around, not sure I was even 100% sure about my statement, but finished with a half-hearted “let’s see”.

The battle was over, it was a draw, but based on that point in time (late 90s) and the location of our space (Texas) … I was wrong … or at least delusional … for now.

>> FAST FORWARD, about fifteen years.

Present day. March 9th, 2012. The day before MLS First Kick in what, up to this point, is the most eagerly anticipated season in league history.

No, MLS is not anywhere near eclipsing the NFL, yet. It really is just assuming its seat at the adult table for American sports this year. That’s the table that for a few decades sat four (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL) but now had to make room for the teeny bopper who’s growing up quickly … MLS. The other sports have curiously taken notice, as MLS scooted out its chair and sat down, but nothing more than a look and head nod the teens way, as they go back to conversing amongst themselves, about big person issues. MLS is at the table by default, but it will still take a while for their peers to acknowledge them.

It was only a few days ago we found out from our current multisport authority, ESPN, that soccer – as a sport - is now not just one of the newly established Big Five, but it is rising quickly with young people, which of course bodes well for the future of not only MLS but all soccer fandom in the United States.

36 years from when Pele arrived and joined the New York Cosmos and set forth the major change in popularity for modern pro soccer in the US and its subsequent youth playing boom nationwide, we now have an established league in MLS with little sign of abating. Most of its clubs play in Soccer Specific Stadiums (SSS). Fan culture is becoming larger, more intense and officially more encouraged. We have TV deals that pay our league (NBC Sports Network) and clubs money. We have shirt sponsors, stadiums sponsors and sold-out suites. TV ratings aren’t great for domestic MLS, but are much healthier for the EPL on FOX, the World Cup on ESPN, the Women’s World Cup, UEFA Champions League and the European Championships. The women’s side is still dominating internationally but finding its right speed at the club level. Our youth play nationwide on thousands of fields and complexes that have been built for the sport. We are starting to realize that college soccer holds potential players back, that pros need to develop our players and we now have a true academy system, in its infancy, but moving forward. Canada is united with the USA, and we are intertwined at the club level. Our fans are more sophisticated and are eager to take in the foreign game, while growing the domestic version. They’re creating increasingly catchy and everlasting hymns now and their tifo displays would make some hardcore supporters in Europe and Latin America proud.

About 15 years on from when I made that precocious statement and mere hours from the start of what I think will in the future be considered the beginning of the next phase for MLS. I can say now without intent of malice or in retort, but in confidence and wisdom from what soccer was, is and what I think it to be:

MLS and soccer, will be bigger than the NFL or any other sport in the USA, eventually.

So, it’s time to just start sitting back in our couches to enjoy, clearing our throats at the table we’ve earned to sit at and stop being so defensive or proselytizing to non-believers, because “eventually” is about 17 years closer.


Binghamton Univ.
Club Domestic:
NY Cosmos, RSL
Club Foreign:
Palermo, Napoli, FCB
Creator of Soccer Newsday. President of World Football Travel. Founder of NY Cosmos Campaign. Manager of North American Soccer Industry group on LinkedIn. Helped a few fans see the global game. Proposed on-field at MLS Cup 04. Longtime devotee of Soccer.