New York City FC will arrive into a North American soccer landscape at a time when the sport’s popularity in the country is at an all-time high.
With more than 24 million Americans playing the sport and 15.9 million tuning in for the last World Cup final, it’s fair to say that passion for a game which has long lived in the shadow of more traditional American sports is in ready supply.
No wonder tickets for Manchester City’s US Tour match at St Louis Cardinals’ Busch Stadium sold out in just 20 minutes.
However, American soccer enthusiasts are increasingly looking closer to home for their fill of the beautiful game, with attendances at Major League Soccer matches growing exponentially year-on-year as the league expands in scale and ambition.
With a second New York team now announced in the shape of New York City FC, the league’s twentieth team, it seems the league’s success story is only just starting to be written.
Major League Soccer was launched in 1996, two-years after World Cup USA 94, a tournament which did wonders for promoting the sport in the country, with the Round of 16 match between USA and Brazil drawing a then-record 13.7 million TV audience.
The launch of a professional soccer league, missing in the country since the dissolution of the North American Soccer League in 1985, was an integral element of the USA’s bid to FIFA for the tournament and the dream was finally realised with the opening of the Major League Soccer season on April 6, 1996.
Bolstered by the recruitment of world stars, like Carlos Valderrama, who would go on to become the inaugural season’s Most Valuable Player, as well as a talented crop of home grown household names, like Brian McBride, Brad Friedel and Alexi Lalas, the league was initially comprised of ten founding members.
Five teams from each coast contested the maiden MLS season, competing in the Eastern and Western Conferences to decide who would meet in the MLS Cup final at Foxboro Stadium.
In that first season, it was Western Conference champions Los Angeles Galaxy who faced DC United from the nation’s capital in a thrilling match which was decided courtesy of a dramatic extra-time winner by Eddie Pope in a 3-2 win.
This sparked an early period of dominance for the Washington team, who would go on to claim three of the opening four MLS Cups under legendary US national team member, Bruce Arena.
Attendances dipped in the following years after that initial first season boom and the suggestion was that the novelty of the game was wearing off in a country more comfortable with American Football, Baseball, Basketball and Ice Hockey but this dip was to prove merely a blip.
An increased focus on developing local North American talent rather than buying in expensive stars reaching the end of their careers began to bear fruit for the American national team, who reached the quarter-finals of the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea.
In the second round, USA defeated Mexico 2-0 in what was taken to be an epoch-shattering result.
For the first time since USA beat England in the 1950 World Cup, soccer was making headlines across the front pages of the dailies and what followed was a period in which fans flocked to stadiums to see this golden generation of homegrown talent.
Four months after the 2002 World Cup final, a record 61,316 spectators crammed into the Gillette Stadium to see LA Galaxy claim their first MLS Cup.
The US national team has continued its steady improvement and proved that 2002 was no fluke by reaching the World Cup again in 2006 and in 2010, topped World Cup Group C ahead of England to reach the last 16.
Attendances in MLS were handed another boost when David Beckham joined LA Galaxy in 2007 but the “Beckham effect” is just one of a number of factors that have contributed to USA’s growing love affair with The Beautiful Game.
Although the league differs from major European leagues in several key rules, including the draft system and the lack of a promotion/relegation system, the increasing popularity of the league could be attributed to just how competitive it is.
Like in other major American sports, there tends to be no one outstanding team in the league – a point of view bared out by the number of different winners of the MLS Cup.
LA Galaxy and DC United both have four titles to their name from the 17 finals that have been played but the remaining nine titles are shared among seven other clubs.
It’s little wonder that MLS is one of the fastest growing football leagues in world football, with an average attendance of 18,807 for the 2012 season - just 59 people behind France’s Ligue 1.
MLS attendances dwarf those of the Argentine, Brazilian and Japanese top divisions and the numbers continue to climb, thanks in part to the extension of the league to include teams from traditional soccer hotbeds, including Seattle Sounders, Toronto FC, Philadelphia Union, Vancouver Whitecaps and Portland Timbers who have all joined the league since 2005.
Indeed, average attendances at MLS games now leave NBA and NHL in the shade.
Although due to the sheer scale of the country, away support is limited due to the distances between the teams competing, rivalries are a huge component of Major League Soccer.
There are several secondary “Rivalry Cups” played out typically between neighbouring teams, including DC United and New York Red Bulls (Atlantic Cup), La Galaxy and Chivas USA (Superclasico) and the Rocky Mountain Cup (Real Salt Lake and Colorado Rapids).
These cups are handed at the end of the campaign to the team with the better seasonal record.
New for the 2013 season was the addition of “Rivalry Week” to the league calendar, with teams pitted against their bitterest adversaries, which included all-Canadian match-up Montreal Impact against Toronto FC, DC United v New York Red Bulls, a game between Texas foes FC Dallas and the Houston Dynamo.
The MLS season now runs from March to December, with each team playing 34 regular season matches, before five teams from each coast advance to the postseason play-offs for a chance to win the MLS Cup.
More than 90% of the year’s regular season games are on weekends or holidays, none will overlap directly with the FIFA World Cup qualifying matches and most games will kick off no earlier than 4pm local time in a bid to reduce impact of hot weather on the matches.
All 323 games of this 2013 season are being televised live on more than 80 official national network partners, including ESPN, NBC and Spanish language channel ESPN Deportes, as well as being broadcast across the world in the UK and France.
With the Blue Moon rising over New York City in the shape of New York City FC in 2015, there’s no sign of this MLS success story tailing off any time soon.