The end of the World Cup leaves a void. The month-long stream of soccer halted when Philipp Lahm lifted the trophy at the Maracana on Sunday. The rhythm of this summer — get up, go to work, read websites like FOXSoccer.com to catch up on news, watch games surreptitiously, go home — is now disrupted.
It’s a little bit jarring, in truth. Brazil isn’t conceding goals. James Rodriguez isn’t correcting people about the pronunciation of his name or scoring goals. Arjen Robben isn’t flopping around in a bid to win free kicks. Luis Suarez isn’t biting defenders. The United States men’s national team isn’t producing dramatic game after dramatic game to escape the Group of Death. Tim Howard isn’t even producing save after save anymore.
Fortunately, there are options available to quench the desire for more soccer. UEFA Champions League qualifying has already commenced. Several top clubs are visiting for friendlies over the next few weeks. The European season cranks into gear by mid-August. And the transfer market never stops.
All of those options lack a little bit of local flavor, though. Yes, there are American players involved at some European clubs. But several of the familiar faces ply their trade Stateside. They hopped right back into MLS after trudging off the field against Belgium a couple of weeks ago.
This moment — right after a thrilling World Cup — might prove the perfect time to sample MLS, too. The games continue from now until December. There is plenty of entertainment and intrigue swirling around the league. And there are a few recognizable stars to provide some help with the transition.
If this method of coping with World Cup withdrawal appeals, then here is everything you need to know about MLS to get started:
Where is MLS in terms of its season? Right in the middle of the 34-game campaign, the season runs from March to December, including playoffs.
Wait, how come you said MLS instead of the MLS? Trust us on this one. Don’t say “the MLS.”
What can I expect on the field? Watching MLS isn’t the same as watching the World Cup. It isn’t the Premier League or La Liga, either. But the quality of play improves with each passing year and the games are generally entertaining.
How many players will I recognize from the World Cup? There were 22 MLS players in Brazil, all told. United States coach Jürgen Klinsmann named 10 MLS stars in his squad; Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC) and Clint Dempsey (Seattle) featured among them. Other countries also relied on MLS; Australia leaned on New York star Tim Cahill as always, while Costa Rica made it to the quarterfinals with Columbus defender Giancarlo Gonzalez drawing rave reviews in the middle of the back five.
There are other familiar faces hanging around, too, right? You bet. Jermain Defoe (Toronto FC), Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy), Thierry Henry (New York) and Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy) have all probably hit the radar at one point or another.
MLS isn’t just about the stars, though. The salary budget structure ($3.1 million per team with exceptions for Designated Players and other supplementary mechanisms) creates and imposes parity across the board. As a result, MLS offers a place to cultivate young stars, integrate established professionals and revive careers.
How are the crowds?: On the whole, they are great. MLS has an average attendance of 18,000 or so per match, but the real talking point is the ambiance in the crowds. The atmospheres in Kansas City, Portland and Seattle would fit nicely into any top-flight European league. And those are just the three most notable places to catch a game right now.
OK. I know the basics — 19 teams split into the Eastern and Western Conferences, 10 teams qualify for the playoffs (five from each conference), one team wins MLS Cup at the end — well enough. Where does everything sit right now?Basically, every team — give or take a couple — is still in the playoff hunt at the midway point. Seattle is a bit ahead of the pack out West, but everything else is congested. Expect the race for the final few playoff spots to extend all the way through to the end of the regular season.
Why is Seattle ahead of the pack right now?: They combine big-market spending with a keen appreciation for the collective strength required to succeed in MLS over the long haul. It helps to have Dempsey and Obafemi Martins leading the way, but this team — including Osvaldo Alonso, Brad Evans and Chad Marshall — is strong from back to front.
Are there other potential challengers?: Sporting Kansas City claimed MLS Cup last year. Toronto FC is searching for the first playoff berth in club history. LA Galaxy and New York usually contend. D.C. United (coming off the worst season in club history) and Real Salt Lake loom as potential threats with their veteran teams, too.
All of this stuff is well and good. But why should I care if I’m primarily focused on the United States men’s national team?: MLS offers current, former, future and hopeful national team players with the chance to obtain match practice at a good standard. It keeps them sharp for international matches and prepares them for a potential move overseas if they choose that route. Jozy Altidore, DaMarcus Beasley, Geoff Cameron and Tim Howard all started their careers in MLS, for instance.
Will it fill the hole created by the World Cup?: Nothing is quite like the World Cup, but it comes around just once every four years. MLS offers the chance to attend live games in the United States, track American stars from the present and the future and watch a host of competitive matches on TV every weekend. It may or not satisfy the craving, but it certainly offers a good place to start.