Sepp Blatter tops the list of invited guests already for the opening matches of Major League Soccer this year. That is the FIFA president’s ‘reward’ for being less than enthusiastic about the pace of progress for the American professional game since the United States hosted the 1994 World Cup.
Blatter’s comments, in a New Year interview with Al Jazeera prompted squeals of derision though not, perhaps significantly, from MLS commissioner Don Garber.
Two decades ago one of the pledges of the United States bid to host the finals was that a ‘serious’ professional league would be ready to build on the momentum generated by the finals.
However, while the organisational stability of Major League Soccer has been proved by its endurance and evolution, it was not ready to start until 1996, two years after the first – and so far only – finals in the US.
Previous attempts to make the professional game stick, such as the original North American Soccer League, had generated only financial suicide which gave the game and many of its administrators a bad name.
Simultaneously the development and popularity at grassroots level has been immense. Soccer is the kids’ sport of choice. But Blatter is disappointed at what has not been achieved.
All of that goes to show that they may have been over-sold originally on the American soccer dream by then USSF president Alan Rothenburg and his bid team.
Blatter told Al Jazeera: “Soccer is the most popular game among the youth – not American football or baseball – but there is not yet a strong football league. There is Major League Soccer but no other professional leagues recognised by American society.
“Of course it is a question of time. I thought, when we had the World Cup in the United States in 1994, it should have been done by now. But it’s been 18 years and they are still struggling.”
But MLS has expanded from 10 teams in 2004 to 19 in 2012. It has created nine soccer-specific stadia since 2007 and, last season, boasted its highest average attendance of 18,807, putting it on par with the NBA and NHL.
Garber took it all on the chin, albeit admitting to a little surprise.
He responded: “We still have a lot of work to do. We understand and accept that but arguably there’s probably not another sports league in the world that has achieved as much as we have in the last 20 years.
“I know that the president believes in American soccer and believes in the league but when you’re not here for a while or don’t travel much to the US, it’s hard to fully understand what the sports market is like here.
“I really don’t believe the president believes we are struggling. I don’t think anybody in the pro sports community would describe us that way. In no way are we struggling, but we are less than 20 years old; we haven’t gone through a full generational term.
“The other major US sports leagues are deeply embedded in the culture and have been for generations. MLS, in a short period of time, has made great progress. But we have not been around for 100 years like [some] other [U.S.] leagues and certainly like the European soccer leagues, and as such, our development is appropriate to where we are from an age perspective.
“We have always had a good relationship with FIFA and president Blatter . . . Without FIFA and the World Cup coming here in ’94, there’s no Major League Soccer.”