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Henry's MLS move continues football's progress in USA

Thierry Henry has moved to play football in the MLS
Henry's transfer is a boost for football in the US, but questions remain about whether the sport can achieve a major breakthrough

By Tim Love

Monaco. Juventus. Arsenal. Barcelona. And now, New York Red Bulls.

The career path of France's top goal-scorer of all time, Thierry Henry, has taken him to some of the world's most illustrious and well-known clubs.

At the age of 32 and with plenty of top European clubs rumoured to be keen on his services, the Arsenal legend has chosen to finish his career playing in Major League Soccer in the United States.

Henry's decision has provided the league with a powerful brand name to add to that of David Beckham, who moved to the LA Galaxy in 2007.

US football is improving - Ferguson

While the former Barcelona striker's arrival was not met with the same fanfare as Beckham's grand entrance three years ago, there has been a very healthy amount of coverage in the saturated American sports media.

"It's highly unlikely that soccer will ever reach the heights of popularity in the US enjoyed by the three major sports; the NFL, MLB and NBA," Jen Chang, Soccer Editor at Sports Illustrated, told BBC Sport.

"However, becoming an established top five sport is certainly within reach, and ultimately I don't see why it can't become more popular than the NHL."

Sunil Gulati, US Soccer Federation President, has overseen a period of very steady growth for football and the MLS.

The league average attendance this season is roughly 16,000 people per game and ticket sales have grown by almost 10% compared to the 2009 figures. Given that the MLS was founded in 1993, the growth of the league is impressive.

"The MLS is not trying to be baseball. It's not trying to be the NFL. These are both sports with major history behind them," Gulati told BBC Sport.

"My favourite catchphrase when people ask me how long it will take for soccer and the MLS to prosper is simple: tradition takes time."

Football is fortunate to have excellent TV exposure in the US. Almost all MLS games are available to watch and the World Cup was a major success for broadcaster ESPN.

ESPN invested more financially in its coverage of the World Cup than any other event in its 30-year history and the viewing figures throughout the tournament were very impressive.

US fans watch the World Cup
The World Cup gave football unprecedented TV exposure in the US

A total of 19.4m people watched the USA's loss to Ghana in the second round of the tournament and 24.3m people watched the final between Spain and the Netherlands.

This is compared to the 22.3m who watched the decisive games in last year's baseball World Series, while ice hockey's Stanley Cup this year pulled in just 8.3m.

"We don't expect a single event and the viewing figures to change the landscape of our game overnight," explains Gulati.

"But the sport has been on a pretty upward trend for a while now. The difference between 1994 (when the US hosted the World Cup) and now is that we have a 16 team league, 10 soccer specific stadiums, soccer on TV and players who the public know about."

Chuck Culpepper, author and a former sport correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, recounts a conversation he had on a flight recently in which the World Cup became a topic of conversation.

"I sat next to a man who said his 20-year-old son, a student at Auburn University in Alabama (a state synonymous with American Football), would wake early during the World Cup, paint his face and join a gaggle of friends at a bar to watch the matches during breakfast hours."

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"If you had told me in 2002, when the United States reached the quarter-finals, that even this nugget would happen in Alabama in 2010, when the United States did not quite reach the quarter-finals, I would not have believed you. The number one reason this happened in Alabama: TV coverage," Culpepper added.

The implication of this story is that there are many casual football fans who have an interest in the sport and who are potential MLS converts. By signing players such as Henry, US Soccer is intending to do just that in both the short term and the long term.

"The challenge is certainly to get people who watch the US national team to watch MLS," said Gulati, who has been in charge of US Soccer since 2006.

"In the short term, Henry is a player who chose MLS over the Premier League. He's a great figure to have on the field and he'll excite people.

"In the long-term, you hope that people might come out and choose to watch Henry for a first time, then a second time, a third time... Hopefully people will see the connection between the 'watercooler talk' and go and watch a game."

American fans

Football fever grips USA

It is a view Chang agrees with.

"I think as the years go by, the appetite for ageing foreign retreads will lessen unless those players are still top players, but ultimately Americans want to feel like they are watching the best product and for that, you'll always need to bring in the big names," according to Chang.

"The MLS needs to continue to bring over the big names even if they are at the tail-end of their careers. In Henry's case, he's lost a bit of pace, but I still expect him to dominate and probably be the best player in the league."

What can be said for certain is that the MLS will not collapse like football's first attempt to launch in the US - the North American Soccer League - did in the early 1980s.

But how long is Gulati prepared to wait for interest in soccer in the US to explode?

"As long as it takes."



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see also
Henry leaves Barca for New York
14 Jul 10 |  Football
Is the US finally going World Cup mad?
26 Jun 10 |  US & Canada
Watching the Beckham revolution
10 Aug 09 |  Football


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