Nearly four decades ago, the legendary Brazilian striker Pele arrived in New York amid great fanfare, the supposed savior of a largely unnoticed sport.
With pro soccer in the U.S. still desperate for salvation 4 1/2 years ago, international superstar David Beckham left Real Madrid for Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Galaxy and a $250 million contract.
Finally, Americans may be taking notice. In 2011, average per-game attendance for the MLS hit an all-time high at 17,870, compared to 16,675 the previous season, according to the National Soccer Examiner. The figure put the sport in the No. 3 spot nationally over the NBA (17,319) and the NHL (17,126). (The NBA lockout can't hurt soccer's attendance numbers.)
This year's spike in average attendance for the 18 MLS clubs represents an increase of 7.2 percent, surpassing the league's previous record of 17,406 during its inaugural 1996 season, according to The Sporting News. The league's lowest attendance came in 2000 when it averaged 13,756 fans. MLS is now the 10th highest attended soccer league in the world. And interest in soccer has been boosted by television deals with major sports networks.
"It's historic for us -- we exceeded our best with 18 teams, and we only had 10 back then," said MLS President Mark Abbott. "We have Montreal joining next year, and we believe that we will have a very positive story in that market as well."
Observers of the sport attribute the growing interest in part to the construction of more fan-friendly soccer stadiums as well as the league's recognition of an established soccer culture in the Pacific Northwest. That region now has three MLS teams: the Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps.
In a nation of immigrants, MLS has another potential draw: It's the most diverse of the top five U.S. sports leagues, with approximately 184 international players from 57 countries on its rosters, according to the league. The league has said that 33 percent of its fan base is Latino as well as about 16 percent of its players.
MLS's average game attendance numbers still pale in comparison to the country's top two sports -- the National Football League (66,960) and Major League Baseball (30,352).
But there's no denying that soccer has come far in the decades since Pele donned the white-and-greens of the New York Cosmos at a run-down stadium on Randall's Island in the shadow of the Triborough Bridge, The Guardian noted:
Soccer in the United States was dying a slow, painful and largely unnoticed death in 1975. Five years since the North American Soccer League (NASL) began, the game had barely registered on the public's radar. "Soccer," said one writer, "was just a game played by Commies and fairies in short pants". Even in New York, the most ethnically diverse metropolis on the planet, there was little appetite for the game and the city's own franchise, the New York Cosmos, were, according to their American goalkeeper Shep Messing, "drawing less than the skin flicks on Eighth Avenue".
When U.S. soccer's newest savior was introduced to fans 4 1/2 years ago, Beckham expressed his desire to raise the status of the game in this country, the Los Angeles Times noted.
"I know there's the baseball, the basketball, the American football, but I believe that the excitement that can be caused by those other sports can be caused also by soccer," he said.
In the twilight of his career, Beckham failed to deliver on that promise. The fans are still waiting. And, with Beckham's contract expiring and his MLS adventure likely coming to an close, the game awaits its next savior.
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements.Learn more