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Desai: Prominence for the MLS is fast approaching

Even though football is currently in its offseason, Stanford Stadium is definitely not. Last weekend, the local San Jose Earthquakes hosted the rival Los Angeles Galaxy at the home field of the Cardinal in the most exciting Major League Soccer match of the season.

Down 2-1 as stoppage time began, the Earthquakes launched an all-out attack in hopes of a miracle. A 92nd-minute tap in by Shea Salinas and a 93rd-minute header by Alan Gordon sent the fans into a frenzy, even though it was just a measly MLS match.

Compared to the likes of the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga and Germany’s Bundesliga, the MLS is as neglected as the fourth Jonas brother. The MLS has become known as the league where legends like David Beckham and Thierry Henry play when they want one last shot at the spotlight before retirement. It’s the soccer equivalent of a mid-season NBC comedy.

Therefore, most American fans turn their attention toward top European leagues, and you can direct some of the blame at me for that as well. Every Saturday morning, I would get up before sunrise and don my blue jersey just to watch my beloved London-based Chelsea FC claim third place in the English Premier League. Meanwhile, the Earthquakes-Galaxy game was the only MLS match I’ve watched all season.

The American soccer season is structured differently than its European counterpart, as the MLS runs from March to September — around the time of the European offseason. However, international competitions like the European Championship, the World Cup and the recently completed Confederations Cup all take place once every four years during the summer. Brazilian maestros Fred and Neymar seemed like Picasso and Dali during the Confederations Cup, making MLS stars Chris Wondolowski and Robbie Keane look like first graders finger painting.

However, the U.S. has shined on an international stage in the past. In the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa, the Americans upset the mighty Spaniards in the semifinal and even took a 2-0 lead against Brazil in the final. In fact, the United States is currently No. 28 in the FIFA World Ranking, only six spots behind Brazil.

But the United States’ relative international success has not translated well domestically, as the MLS still remains an undesirable league to play in. Many of the starting players for the United States national team, like Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard, have taken their talents to Europe, where they are able to play against other elite players. Only nine of the 23 players called up to play for the United States in its World Cup qualifier against Honduras on June 18 actually play in the MLS. In comparison, all 18 players who played for England against Brazil on June 2 play in the Premier League.

And yet, soccer in the U.S. is growing in popularity quicker than most people realize.

With the emergence of the United States national team has also come a large demographic of American soccer fans. This year’s Confederations Cup saw a 26 percent rise in viewership from the previous one, and the United States didn’t even qualify. FIFA ’13 was purchased by more than 300,000 Americans — myself included — on its launch date. And a quick search on Amazon reveals that the jerseys of Fred, Neymar and Argentinean forward Lionel Messi are being outsold only by those of Miami Heat hero LeBron James, Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul and NFL free agent headliner Aaron Hernandez.

The problem with the MLS isn’t rooted in the sport’s popularity or talent pool; the league’s biggest challenge is marketing. I don’t even know what channel is responsible for broadcasting Earthquakes matches.

The United States’ sizeable population offers a large potential audience, but that market is currently too big for the MLS to handle. The only MLS cities that have hardcore fan bases are those in the Pacific Northwest — and Seattle Sounders fans are probably just waiting for a basketball team to come back. American soccer’s subpar stadiums and teams don’t stand a chance in large markets like Los Angeles and New York. I would rather go to a Mets game than a New York Red Bulls match.

But the MLS is steadily trying to win audiences over. This summer, the U.S. will host the inaugural International Champions Cup, which will feature eight soccer superpowers including Real Madrid and Chelsea. These eight teams will be playing at various venues around the country — including AT&T Park — in hopes of being crowned champion. The Champions Cup will mark the first time that teams of such elite stature will be playing in a tournament in the United States.

Those elite teams are trying to take advantage of the large audience the U.S. offers. In a blockbuster $100-million expansion, the New York Yankees and Manchester City formed a marriage more surprising than Khloe Kardashian and Lamar Odom’s to try to bring another team, to be called New York City FC, into the MLS by 2015.

The MLS is gaining some momentum, and I think we’re only a generation away from soccer making its mark in the U.S. Despite soccer’s current mediocrity here, it is still identified as the country’s second favorite sport in the young adult demographic.

If the MLS sorts out its marketing struggles, we might one day live in a nation where young boys have posters of Wondolowski and Landon Donovan alongside those of Miguel Cabrera and Aaron Rodgers.

And if the league gets it just right, I might finally learn what channel broadcasts the Earthquakes’ matches.

Nathan Desai is hoping that the impending breakthrough of the MLS will help him forget the Giants’ ongoing pitching struggles. Help him hold up until then by sending him supportive messages at thegreatnate97 ‘at’ gmail.com.

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