The Major League Soccer (MLS) season starts Sunday.
Major League Soccer is the top professional soccer league in the United States. In many other countries, the sport is called football.
The Portland Timbers, a team from Oregon, won the MLS championship last year.
The Timbers will start defending their championship on Sunday, the first day of the new season.
MLS was launched with 10 teams in 1996. In 20 years, the league has doubled in size and expanded into Canada -- with teams now in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.
David Beckham helped bring international attention to MLS nine years ago when he agreed to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy. Beckham was a star player from England. He had also played in Spain with Real Madrid.
Players around the world started seeing MLS as more than just a place to earn a lot of money at the end of their careers.
Ireland’s Robbie Keane also plays for the Galaxy. Before coming to the U.S., he played for Inter Milan in Italy, and Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool Football Club in England.
Keane recently told Sky Sports that he knows of other European players who want to come to the United States.
“Players I've played with are calling me up now from England and Spain and are really, really desperate to come over here because they can see how much the league has grown.”
Brian Straus writes about soccer for Sports Illustrated and the magazine’s website, Planet Futbol. He says Keane is one of the best examples of foreign players who have left a mark on MLS.
“Robbie Keane may be the best foreign signing in league history. He certainly has taken it seriously, has certainly respected the league and has delivered. The Galaxy won three championships since he came over."
Some of the best MLS players come from countries like Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Brazil, Italy, Netherlands, England, Ireland and Spain.
In fact, the quality of play is strong enough that even young American players are being sought out by major teams overseas. That almost never happened before.
Chelsea, a famous team from England, recruited Matt Miazga in the offseason. Miazga is a 20-year-old from New Jersey. He started his career with the New York Red Bulls. Chelsea spent about $5 million to get Miazga from the Red Bulls.
Patrick Nyarko of Ghana plays for Washington’s team, D.C. United. Nyarko attended college in the United States. He spent eight seasons playing for the Chicago Fire before moving to D.C.
He says he is happy to be a part of a soccer league that is producing good players.
"It’s improving. It’s growing probably faster than anyone would have thought. It’s getting there slowly but surely. I think it’s going to be one of the biggest sports in the United States. Word is spreading. You’ve got people, top-class talent coming into the league, and it’s got eyes on it. You know, you’ve got these young guys that do well and then make it overseas."
Some of the famous players in MLS this year are David Villa of Spain, Andrea Pirlo of Italy and Frank Lampard of England. They all play for the New York City Football Club (FC).
The Los Angeles Galaxy has Keane, Steven Gerrard of England and Nigel de Jong of the Netherlands. De Jong left the Italian team A.C. Milan over the winter to play in the U.S.
Didier Drogba of the Montreal Impact is from Ivory Coast. He had 104 goals when he played for Chelsea.
Kei Kamara of Sierra Leone is one of the best goal-scorers in MLS. He plays for the Columbus Crew.
The Brazilian player Kaka plays for Orlando City. In the past, he played for Brazil’s national soccer team, and Real Madrid and A.C. Milan in Europe.
Sebastian Giovinco of Italy was the MLS most valuable player in 2015. He plays for Toronto FC in Canada.
Patrick Nyarko says he grew up following all the important soccer leagues around the world. He considers himself a “fan of the game” and a “soccer junkie.” Sometimes he cannot believe he is playing in the same game with some of his favorite players of all-time.
When he was a first-year player with Chicago in 2008, he was “star-struck” to be on the same team with Cuauhtemoc Blanco, the famous Mexican player.
“My three favorite soccer players of all time: you know, I have Thierry Henry, Ryan Giggs and Steven Gerrard. I have had the opportunity to play against two of them and I might have an opportunity to play against the third one on Sunday. I’m a fan. So even though I’m concentrating on the game, when it stops, sometimes I catch myself thinking – oh, I am on the field with so, so and so. It makes it pretty cool.”
Sportswriter Brian Straus says the quality of play in MLS compares well with most of the world. But it is not yet at the level of play as places like Spain, England, France, Germany, Brazil and Argentina.
“Those leagues are well ahead of MLS, which is trying to find its way in a country where soccer has been considered a viable pro sport for only 20 to 30 years. People forget that in 1990, when the United States qualified for the World Cup, it had been 40 years since the U.S. played in the sport’s biggest tournament. So, soccer here is still only a generation or so old. And considering that, MLS has made remarkable strides.”
I’m Dan Friedell.
Words in This Story
recruit – v. to contact people and get them to join a company, an organization or the armed forces
offseason – n. a period between seasons, when no games are played
talent – n. a special skill or ability
viable – adj. able to succeed
cool – adj. very appealing in a way that is generally approved of especially by young people
starstruck – adj. feeling or showing great interest in famous people
junkie – n. a person who gets an unusual amount of pleasure from watching or doing something
most valuable player– n. the most important and successful player on a team or in a game