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Cincinnati's reminder: North America has more markets ready for top-level soccer

(Photo courtesy USL)

Mid-table Premier League teams playing before packed houses, in third-tier markets. As Steve Davis notes, that's the latest hint of a landscape pining for more soccer.

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Markets across the United States are ready for something bigger, something more grand, in professional soccer. Plenty of them. They have pro soccer; they covet pro soccer writ large. The case for something more grandiose was literally all around Alan Pardew late Saturday night in Ohio.

As the Crystal Palace manager marveled over a memorable night, effusive in praise of the big crowd in Cincinnati, the brilliant atmosphere and beautiful facilities that greeted his team’s ongoing swing through North America, the background teemed with activity even after the final whistle. The lower level, full for the friendly against John Harkes’ Cincinnati team, was still pretty much full.

It was a snapshot of something bigger – something important that’s worth talking about: it was that reminder that perhaps a dozen (or perhaps even more) cities across this big land of ours could support the highest level of professional soccer.

To be sure, there is nothing wrong with markets thriving in the second and third tiers of soccer in the United States and Canada, the North American Soccer League and United Soccer League. But in 2016, only one league has multiple, major network TV contracts, and that’s Major League Soccer. MLS is the only league with budgets sufficient to attract the true heavies of international soccer, the “brand names,” the David Beckhams, David Villas, Kakas, etc.

MLS is “the show” of North American soccer. It’s a 20-team operation – one that will grow larger, imminently a 24-team operation. MLS commissioner Don Garber recently said a 28-team MLS is just around the corner.

Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Orlando and New York City took MLS' numbers to 20 last season. (Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports)

Beyond? Well, Garber and MLS owners don’t need to get ahead of themselves. Prudent expansion has been a cornerstone of league operations, that regrettable Chivas USA hiccup notwithstanding. (And lessons have been appropriately absorbed and applied since that disaster of a franchise came and mercifully went.)

So Saturday’s happening in Cincinnati was living, breathing reminder that multiple markets await their time in the domestic soccer “show.”

“Tonight wasn’t about the football, really, it was about the club, the whole place was unbelievable tonight,” Pardew told his club’s website. “I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life, for preseason. It was like a cup final. It was brilliant.”

Let’s put this in perspective. A crowd of more than 35,000 was at Nippert Stadium to see Crystal Palace, an earnest, gritty South London side. The team did well enough last year in England’s Premier League, but in terms of glamour, prestige and drawing power, Pardew’s club is hardly bumping up against the sexy likes of Manchester United, Real Madrid, etc. So attracting 35,000 really says something.

And consider that all of this dreamy stuff happened in a market that rarely gets mentioned in the ongoing game of “Who’s Next” in MLS, the fluid rotation of cities atop the totem pole of expansion possibilities. St. Louis, Sacramento and San Antonio headline that list lately. (Never forget one of the odd truisms of MLS support centers: everyone is equally interested in who else will be in MLS as much as they are interested in who already is in MLS.)

We can have fair debates about whether 24 is big enough. Whether 28 is perhaps too ambitious – and whether 32 or beyond is just wacky. Honestly, I say 32 is fine, so long as MLS takes ground gradually. Even beyond is possible if someone gets creative enough and turns up a way to support a modern model of promotion-relegation within the MLS construct.

Either way, this much seems clear: in this big land of ours, there are ample markets that could support professional soccer at a bigger level.

(Photo courtesy USL)

Crystal Palace experiences the depth of U.S. soccer fandom. (Photo courtesy USL)

It starts in Cincinnati, where Saturday’s happening was no accident. A match earlier this year between Harkes’ club and Louisville drew more than 20,000. Cincinnati FC owner Carl Lindner, whose club has just started in USL, has already put a bug in Garber’s ear about future consideration.

Louisville, about a two-hour drive from Cincinnati, is another market with mounting momentum, now averaging more than 7,000 for its home matches, having created real buzz in the city.

North of there, the Indy Eleven draws 8,314 a match, second-best average gate in NASL. (Minnesota United, set to enter MLS in a new stadium in 2018, has the best.) San Antonio, with its terrific little field and new backing from the NBA’s Spurs, is aggressive in its strategic maneuvering toward “bigger and better,” and drawing well in the process.

Promising attendance figures certainly can’t guarantee success for teams that make the jump, but being good at the gate in these officially designated Tier II and Tier III leagues can perk up MLS ears and get the ball rolling toward Tier I status.

That’s how Orlando ‘s quick breakout from USL into MLS started. That’s why Sacramento Republic FC remains so high on Major League Soccer’s expansion list. The ambitious club, with its history of smashing attendance records and its bullish stadium plans, seems all but officially assured of being added once the league goes to 28 teams.

Once Atlanta gets going next year, MLS will have every U.S. Top Ten TV market covered. But look at the list of 11-30 and note all the areas without MLS presence: Detroit, Phoenix, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Miami, Cleveland-Akron, Sacramento, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Charlotte, Indianapolis, Baltimore, Raleigh-Durham, San Diego, Nashville and Hartford-New Haven.

Would they all buy into what MLS is selling? It’s impossible to say, but we do know this: Starting with Toronto’s 2007 entrance, every club that’s come into MLS has ticked the scale of success somewhere between pretty good (San Jose, Montreal, Philadelphia, Vancouver) to absolute smash hit (Seattle, Portland, Orlando, NYCFC).

Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

MLS' three Pacific Northwest teams hit the ground running in first-tier soccer. (Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports)

Now onto the usual argument against expansion: dilution of the talent pool – an argument that I have never bought.

First, I’ve been hearing this since MLS was at 12 teams. And yet here we are at 20 teams and the quality of play is night-and-day better than 2006 (the last year of a 12-team league). Yes, the boost in roster quality is largely about salary budget increases and allowances for Designated Players. But isn’t it reasonable to assume that salaries will continue to escalate, and that MLS deciders will continue to identify acquisition mechanisms that facilitate higher quality players breaking in at increasing rates?

In soccer, there is literally a world full of players. Maintaining quality (or growing it) is about league economics rather than diminishing talent pools. This isn’t American football, where the talent is mostly within the borders. The blue chips are out there!

And the player academies will continue to develop; there are too many good things happening at FC Dallas, the LA Galaxy and elsewhere. Soon enough, other clubs will catch up, or they’ll risk getting left behind in such an increasingly important MLS roster construction.

Major League Soccer’s commitment to becoming a 28-team operation may feel big enough. Then again, other American leagues are doing fine with numbers beyond (either 30 or 32 in NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball). In fact, in NFL, NBA and MLB, there’s only one trophy that truly matters. In domestic soccer, MLS Cup may be the king, but the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and Supporters Shield are afforded queen status, at least. And there’s also the dream of CONCACAF Champions League. Having three or four important pieces of hardware (rather than just one) provides more support for a larger league.

But don’t get hung up in all that, in sheer numbers and optimal size models and such. The point here is this: multiple markets are at the starting line, ready to race toward the bright stuff of bigger dreams. It’s a good place for American soccer to be.

MLS This and That

After careful scrutiny of MLS Round 19, we’d love to see …

A little more of this: Colorado’s unbeaten streak is up to 14 games. Say that out loud! If a team from a higher profile MLS market had hammered out such a momentous streak, the collective media machine would have already renamed the league after them!

A little less of that: MLS needs to up its TV game in allowing for more flex scheduling. We get a ton of Seattle, L.A., and the two New York sides, which is understandable, big media markets and all. But when the league’s best team (by points per game), one that has legit stars (Jermaine Jones, Tim Howard, Shkëlzen Gashi) can’t find a way into the national schedule, something’s gone wrong.

A little more of this: Tifo like this Sunday in Portland. So cool! MLS really has reached peak tifo over the last couple of years. (Another recent favorite is here.)

A little less of that: The East. The current leader, NYCFC has a negative goal difference! It defies explanation other than to say the usual, that these things are cyclical things and it will eventually turn. Maybe; you have to go back to 2008 to find an MLS Cup winner that currently resides in the East.

A little more of this: I love that the mechanics of MLS All-Star voting are sophisticated enough to recognize a rookie right back who deserves his spot on the roster set to face Arsenal later this month in San Jose, Philadelphia’s Keegan Rosenberry.

A little less of that: Whatever voting mechanics led to Diego Valeri and Matt Hedges, two of the league’s best this year at their positions, not finding spots on the All-Star team. Meanwhile Kaka, who hasn’t played in half his team’s matches, who was practically invisible in his most recent MLS appearance, somehow made the All-Star game-day roster. Kendall Waston and Andrew Farrell are questionable picks, too. Not bad players … but not All-Star selections compared to several others. One step forward, two steps backward, apparently.

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Steve Davis writes a weekly column for FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @SteveDavis90.