MLS set to continue rise in 17th season

Ten years ago, Major League Soccer stood on what seemed like shaky ground. Having been forced to eliminate two teams, and staring at the prospects of an uncertain economic future, MLS didn’t look like a league that would succeed where the North American Soccer League failed.

MLS looked like a league destined to join the NASL in the graveyard of unsuccessful sports leagues.

Today, some 10 years later, it is difficult to believe MLS ever faced such an uncertain future because the league’s future has never looked brighter.

From attendance records being broken, to an improving product on the field, to stadiums being built across the country, MLS heads into this, its 17th season, bullish about what lies ahead, stronger than anyone could have imagined after MLS was forced to contract the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny after the 2001 season.

The league has grown strategically and steadily, and the inclusion of markets such as Toronto, Seattle, Philadelphia and Portland in recent years have served to boost the league’s profile and rejuvenate interest not only the new markets, but in existing markets as well.

MLS reaches 19 teams this year with the arrival of the Montreal Impact, which means the league has nearly doubled in size since having to eliminate two teams. The rapid expansion hasn’t hurt the league’s level of play. If anything, the level of talent in MLS right now clearly exceeds what could be found on MLS fields a decade ago.

That is down to, among other things, the league’s growing reputation, which has made it much easier for teams to scout the international market and attract players from around the world. The likes of Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane and Rafa Marquez have signed with MLS, the kind of signings the league could only have dreamed about a decade ago.

Now, as MLS looks to kick off its 17th season this weekend, the league has done very well to distance itself from those uncertain times of a decade ago and the haunting shadow of the NASL. In fact, the NASL’s final season was its 17th, a disaster of a year that saw just nine teams play after the league had grown to as many as 24 teams.

The NASL’s 18th year never came.

For MLS, prospects for its 17th year and 18th year (and years beyond) are exciting, and the upcoming season has soccer fans from coast to coast thrilled at what it will bring.

There is plenty to be excited about for the 2012 campaign. You have the arrival of the Montreal Impact, which will make it three Canadian teams in the league, and will give Toronto FC a rival to help spark even more support. In May, Houston will unveil the league’s latest soccer stadium, BBVA Compass Stadium. In Los Angeles and Seattle, the Galaxy and Sounders have built championship-caliber rosters and stand poised to make runs in the CONCACAF Champions League. In cities like D.C. and Portland, talk of the playoffs has fans excited as both teams look poised for breakout seasons.

Then you have the league’s star players and the US national team prospects who fans can’t wait to see in action again – whether it’s players like Henry and Keane scoring goals again, or watching to see how much better the likes of Brek Shea, Juan Agudelo and Teal Bunbury will be, or introducing ourself to the next generation of players, like rookies Luis Silva, Kelyn Rowe and Ryan Meara.

There is plenty to be excited about as the 2012 MLS season kicks off. A league that faced an uncertain future just a decade ago now looks poised for another successful and entertaining season, and rather than fearing what lies ahead, MLS faces a bright future and the kind of success that eluded every American soccer league before it.