ROUNDBALL DAILY

Thanks to Alphonso Davies and maybe the World Cup, MLS has itself a new fan

Orlando City goalkeeper Joseph Bendik (1) blocks a shot by Vancouver Whitecaps’s Alphonso Davies, center, as Tommy Redding, left, comes in to help defend during the second half of an MLS soccer match, Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017, in Orlando, Fla. Vancouver won 2-1. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

I’m an American and I’m not a hipster or a typical millennial or anything, so I know I’m not supposed to say this, but (looks around and whispers)…yo, seriously, I’ve become a soccer fan.

I don’t know what it is–whether it was the crazy World Cup final between France and Croatia, or the excitement of many of the earlier round games, or something else entirely, I’ve gotten into it. Soccer is dope.

Some of you may remember that I wrote this article about soccer back in 2014, and I believed everything I said then, but I’m not gonna lie–I’m a changed man. Something about the game has gotten me hooked.

Soccer (I kind of want to call it football now, but I won’t) is just pleasing to watch, for whatever reason. The green grass, the white and multicolored ball, the way it flies through the air on a goalie kick or a long pass.

The sounds of the game are also at once soothing and entertaining– the pffft of the ball after it’s kicked sky-high, the beauty of a cross-field pass, and again, the beauty of the field itself, with lush green grass spread for miles like in our football.

Goals are exciting, but so are chances–and as long as there’s enough of both, a typical soccer match can be entertaining, enthralling, thrilling, even.

I haven’t gotten into European soccer–I can’t care which English or Italian city has the best team in its league, but I have gotten into MLS– our soccer.

(Yeah, I’ve been watching those promos).

Sure, MLS may not be the best version of professional soccer–its All-Star team just tied Juventus, a team from Europe, albeit one of the best, in the recent All-Star Game in Atlanta. But for a soccer newbie like me, that doesn’t matter.

Save for a very select few, I don’t know who the top players around the world are anyway.

What I do know is that some of these dudes in MLS are nasty– and they play some pretty exciting soccer.

Take last Saturday night, when I was watching the Vancouver Whitecaps take on Minnesota United. I picked it up around 11 p.m. on the MLS Direct Kick channel (I’m getting a free preview, for some reason), and I sat there absolutely captivated, as this wunderkind named Alphonso Davies just lit up the Loons like Allen Iverson in his prime.

Take a look at the two goals he scored, and tell me this isn’t riveting:

The first one straight-up looks like you’re watching FIFA 18.

Davies, who’s just 17, has already been bought out by FC Bayern Munich, a German team and one of the best sides in the world. That’s cause for celebration for him, but it sucks for us. Because the MLS can’t afford to pay its top stars the type of money they’ll make overseas, the best players that emerge from the league are going to spend their primes elsewhere.

The league’s leading scorer, Josef Martinez, spent some time playing for Torino in Italy before coming to MLS and absolutely lighting the league on fire–he’s got 24 goals in 23 games so far this season, nine more than the next guy (the incorrigible Zlatan Ibrahimovic). He probably won’t last long in MLS, either.

The talent disparity between the league and some of Europe’s best leagues is maybe best described by New York Red Bulls forward Bradley Wright-Phillips, who was a journeyman along the lines of (I don’t know–Marco Bellineli?) in the Premier League before coming over to MLS in 2013 and absolutely dominating everyone.

Wright-Phillips recently scored his 100th career MLS goal, a mark he’s reached faster than anyone in history, and like a true footballer–er, soccer player–he celebrated in outlandish style:

Now that’s how you celebrate a career accomplishment.

The fact that I was watching live on MSG when that happened, four years after writing the most anti-soccer article ever, is honestly remarkable, but it speaks to a larger change in culture.

The MLS just held its All-Star game Atlanta, Georgia, (the Deep South!), and 72,317 fans filled the giant Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Atlanta United, incredibly, has drawn the top five single-game crowds in MLS history, in a city where the Hawks, Braves, and even Falcons have had trouble drawing and where the NHL failed twice. Seattle, Portland, Toronto and L.A. have also seen packed houses filled with ferverous fans.

Games are now being shown in primetime on ESPN and FS1, and soccer recently saw primetime slots for the International Champions Cup on ESPN, pitting some of Europe’s best squads against each other in exhibition games.

For years, soccer backers have been predicting a wave of increase in popularity in the U.S., and there are some signs that it is finally starting to happen.

For a sports fan like me, it makes sense. This gives me something else to watch at this point in the summer–when baseball continues to drag on slowly, the NBA offseason has finally cooled down, and football hasn’t started yet.

Yeah, there are still some things I don’t like about the game. As much as the New York Red Bulls have become my de facto favorite team, I hate the fact that they’re named after an energy drink and have the logo plastered on the front of their jerseys.

I still don’t love the concept of extra time, and the lack of scoring in some games can prove excruciating.

It’s also not prudent that the MLS season runs from March until December, and that the playoffs begin in October and run through December–a more interminable postseason than the NBA’s. Plus, why have the playoffs in the heart of football season, when hockey and basketball are also in full swing?

Still, at least for now, there’s something about this sport that has gotten me checking MLSSoccer.com every day, listening to podcasts about it at the gym and genuinely waiting with anticipation for the next game.

The MLS has itself a new, unlikely fan. And I’m guessing it probably couldn’t be happier about that.

Also see:

Is Felix Hernandez a Hall of Famer?

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