MLS and the Water Cooler

ESPN, BeckhamRuud Gullit coming, Bruce Arena going, Blanco-mania, Beckham-fatigue, Angel-love, San Jose buzz, Seattle next? Just a random collection of hot topics surrounding MLS in recent times. Does this add up to a growing cultural presence for the league? Andrew Dixon makes that point.

The beauty of the events of the past week is that they’ve created more questions than answers. They involve three of the most high profile clubs in the league, two of the most successful coaches to have managed in the league, and the future of one of the most popular players on the planet. And the season’s not even officially done. The playoffs will continue and will create on-field talking points, while the questions surrounding the aforementioned clubs and coaches will give MLS fans enough talking points to last until next spring.

One thing I’ve noticed in other sports like football and baseball is the ability of its analysts to find topics of debate when the season is still four months away. MLS needs that off-season presence in order to create sustained interest in the league, and take it out the realm of “niche sport.” I have no doubt that some of the better known soccer columnists out there will cover these stories, but the challenge is getting these type of stories onto Sports Center and similar high-profile broadcasts.

Yes, the transfer saga surrounding David Beckham last year was big news, but the talking points creating by DC’s ouster and uncertain future, as well as the resignations of Arena and Yallop, can only help MLS by making it relevant between games, and seasons.

Being part of the national sports conversation is critical for American soccer, as Dixon emphasises. Despite the fact the NFL only plays for a few months a year, the coverage is full-on year round: events like the draft, injury updates, trades and so on keep coming.

The question is, though, is indeed on how widely these events in American soccer are being disseminated. Thanks to the internet, MLS-junkies have a plentiful panoply of fora in which to discuss any topic to death (and boy, they sure do at Bigsoccer). Blogs plug holes that traditional media leave.

But big media hasn’t died yet. Newspapers remain crucial: and whilst it’s great the New York Times has a good soccer blog now, their coverage on dead trees leaves a lot to be desired. ESPN continues its schizophrenic approach, investing in MLS coverage but not doing the cross-coverage it does with the major sports. Sports Illustrated magazine, which used to be the agenda setter itself, has (as Slate points out) deteriorated into ESPN The Magazine territory, rarely covering sports outside the big three.

It’s interesting that as national culture fragments with the rise of niche media on cable television and the internet, the major sports media obsesses ever more over one sport, the NFL, with the NBA and MLB bridesmaids. The rest of the sports world is still considered obscure, or bordering on the anti-American: perhaps this is changing slowly, but it’s still a tough road to the office water cool discussion for MLS.

What do fans of American soccer think? Has this season generated more discussion outside hardcore soccer fans about MLS, beyond the Beckham buzz?

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