Major League Soccer in the U.S. is making waves with every passing season. League attendance continues to rise, TV viewership numbers are increasing, and clubs are attracting better and younger players who want to develop their game in the States.
But unbeknownst to most American MLS fans, a movement is brewing across the pond in the UK, the birthplace of the sport and an island that is starting to open up to America’s top flight soccer league.
But this isn’t a movement that just started this season. Ever since David Beckham shocked the football world by moving from Real Madrid to the LA Galaxy in 2007, English soccer fans have had one eye on the league, watching the former Premier League stars who moved across the pond in their twilight years. The 2015 Sky Sports TV deal to bring MLS games to the small screens of British households has only seen the league grow in popularity.
Games such as NYCFC v. New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United FC v. Orlando City SC are promoted as much as big European games in the British media, and Sky Sports even throw watch parties during MLS rivalry week in London, which included having former pros like Frank Lampard watch the games with fans as a way to promote the American league.
The quality of MLS is of course nowhere near that of the Premier League or Spain’s La Liga, but should we expect it to be? The top flight of English football has been around in some from or another for 130 years, and Spain's La Liga will soon celebrate its 90th birthday. By contrast, MLS is a mere 22-years-old, a fledgling league by European standards. Nonetheless, what MLS league lacks in quality it completely makes up for in unpredictability and entertainment, and that has been a major selling point internationally.
The 2018 MLS season has already attracted some new fans. The inaugural ‘El Trafico’ between the LA Galaxy and LAFC did not only have the UK football fan hooked but also most of the continent, largely due to the one and only Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The game was the perfect advert for the league and for people watching their first ever MLS game. It had a recognizable player in former Arsenal man Carlos Vela inspiring LAFC to a 3-0 lead, only for Zlatan to casually hit a 40-yard volley to tie the game on his first ever MLS shot and then head in a 90th-minute winner. To say British football fans were hyped is an understatement.
Many of the top sports journalists and football personalities in the country were praising how entertaining the game was, and of course, Zlatan’s first goal of the game spread throughout the internet like wildfire, quickly becoming the most retweeted video ever on the MLS Twitter account.
Although this game for many UK fans was their first dive into MLS, for some the LA Derby was only further evidence that British football fans should be watching American soccer due to how much entertainment it provides.
While some UK MLS fans have only started following the league this year, others have been a fan of the league and individual clubs for a number of years now.
One of these long-time MLS fans is Taylor Williams, the founder of supporter group Orlando City UK which is one of the biggest MLS fan groups in the country. The group even has a relationship with the Florida-based franchise and throws watch parties for OCSC fans.
Speaking to Total MLS about the growth of MLS in the UK, Williams said, “Having ran Orlando City UK since November 2015, I can categorically say that I’ve noticed more and more Brit’s getting involved in following the league or picking a team. We currently have over 30 members in Britain [In Orlando City UK], which just goes to show how many like-minded Brit’s are interested in the Lions.
“I think the growing interest in MLS is due to the fact it’s so different from the Premier League and Football League. The way the league is designed means that everybody is essentially on a level playing field. With this being the case, anybody can beat anybody on paper and the games are often high scoring, unpredictable encounters.”
How Williams got into MLS is a familiar story to many of those who follow the league in the UK. “I got into MLS having been lucky enough to travel to Orlando many times as a kid and then as an adult with my family. Doing the classic ‘tourist’ things like visiting Walt Disney World, International Drive and Universal Studios, I built up a huge affection for the city and what it had to offer. When Orlando City SC was announced as an MLS franchise, I knew right away that this was a team I wanted to follow.”
The movement has also seen British fans taken their admiration and love for the league into the vast and competitive world of Podcasting. Elliot Holeman, a radio presenter who also found love for American soccer in Orlando, is the creator of ‘The MLS UK Show’, a weekly podcast hosted by Holeman where he and his co-host, Atlanta United fan Henry Hewit, talk all things MLS and interview British MLS fans who also follow the league.
Speaking to Holeman on why he created the podcast and how the league would appeal to British fans, the radio presenter said, “We began the MLS UK Show podcast to try and spread the word further and we’ve seen an exact 50/50 split in audience between UK fans listening and US/Canada fans wanting to hear a UK perspective.
“The majority of [British football] fans will moan that Sunday’s televised game is the rather unglamorous Burnley v. Stoke but will be unaware of the much more exciting MLS match up being shown at the same time. There are fans who would love a second team and would love something to watch in the evenings when nothing else is on TV, and even more importantly would love a holiday across the Atlantic to see their beloved new side in a six goal thriller.”
It's not just UK fans taking notice of the league, either. Scottish winger Johnny Russell joined Sporting Kansas City after leaving Championship side Derby County, who very well may be promoted to the Premier League at the end of the season. Russell grew to be a fan of MLS by watching games on TV, so when they opportunity to join an American side presented itself, he couldn't pass it up.
"Over the last few years, playing in (MLS), it became something I’ve been really interested in doing,” Russell told the Kansas City Star. "It was time to try something different, to have a different life and play a different type of football. I talked with my wife, and this felt like the right place for us."
Russell has adapted well to the new league. At the time of this writing he has two goals and two assists through six games with Sporting KC.
MLS fans want to see their league be seen as one of the biggest and most popular leagues in the world of football. There still may be a long way to go before this dream is achieved, but clubs are making steps in the right direction and the league is growing in popularity every year.
Having an international fan base in any sports league is vital, even more so with football being the global game. MLS is on the right track internationally, especially in the country where the sport was born.