The 2016 season of Major League Soccer is winding down, with four teams remaining in the playoffs after the games of November 6: Colorado and Seattle in the West, and Toronto and Montreal in the East. After the conference finals, the two remaining teams will meet in the MLS Cup on December 10.
The league in 2016 was divided up into the Eastern and Western conferences, each currently containing 10 teams. During this offseason, there will be two new clubs entering the league: Atlanta United FC and Minnesota United FC. Previously, the closest team to St. Paul was Chicago Fire SC, who have missed the playoffs each of the last four years.
Next year, Minnesota United FC will start play at TCF Bank Stadium, where they will play their home games for the entire 2017 season. A quick ride from Macalester down the A Line and the Green Line, the stadium is relatively easily to get to considering how far students would have to travel to see MLS play in years past. However, sharing a stadium primarily used for American football, with soccer as a secondary sport, can be problematic on occasion, both in the lines present on the field and in the design of the stadium. Anyone who has attended Macalester soccer games, the U.S. Women’s National Team game at U.S. Bank Stadium during fall break or any game on a field also painted for American football can attest.
To solve this problem, in 2018 Minnesota United FC will start play at a new, currently unnamed stadium. The stadium will be at a premier location for Macalester students, a short jaunt down the A Line at the corner of Snelling and University, where the Midway Shopping Center is located. Additionally, the project is expected to revitalize the area, bringing new businesses and housing to the neighborhood.
The addition of Minnesota United FC to MLS is a forebearer of something else as well. With the expansion of the league from 20 to 22 teams, the league will now have a greater number of teams than the Premier League. While that is admittedly not a one-to-one correlation given the true popularity of the Premier League, if a league is able to expand its number of teams, it is a sure sign that the league is growing in popularity.
Average MLS attendance in 2015 was higher than that of both the NBA and NHL, and several teams have sellout streaks of over 50 games.
In the past two years, ESPN, FS1 and other major sports networks have begun to broadcast MLS games. According to a recent study, MLS on television has the lowest average viewing age of any of the major five professional sports leagues in the United States, evidence of the up-and-coming nature of Major League Soccer. Even at Macalester, the average age of fans at soccer games is clearly much younger than that of football games.
People often say that soccer is a global sport, and to some extent this is true. The other four major American sports are mostly confined to the United States, or Canada in the case of the NHL. Conversely, soccer is easily at its most popular elsewhere in the world; it is especially prominent in Europe, the location of the most prestigious leagues. Nonetheless, MLS is starting to draw more and more fans in the United States, and is recognized as the premier soccer league in North America at this point. Even without the ability to compete with the major leagues elsewhere in the world, the MLS is growing. Perhaps Minnesota United’s entrance next season will allow the Twin Cities to become a soccer powerhouse, a trend seen in cities around the U.S.