Fans in Toronto, Washington, D.C., San Jose, Chicago and Columbus and a few other MLS cities are proving one tenet of the league that too many critics ignore; as good as soccer on TV can be, it is a sport that is best experienced live with a team to root and cheer and live and die for.
Rather than turn up their noses at a more modest product than what they can see dozens of times a week on the seductive yet distant big screen, they wisely indulge in both, and why not? To me, there's no contradiction in adoring Manchester United and also trudging out to RFK Stadium at every opportunity, especially in June, July and August when the European leagues take their break.
Two days before the MLS All-Star Game in Toronto, I sat in the stands at BMO Field to watch TFC play Montreal in Canadian qualifying series for the Concacaf Champions League. Behind me was a group of fans who obviously attended games and probably played on same team, athletic, passionate people in their 20s and 30s, speaking several tongues and on many soccer topics, including the game they were watching, which occasionally provoked obscenities in English and Portuguese from two of them, both women, and both critical of Toronto's inept attack.
Now, if you're a die-hard fan, or are the offspring of same, you may have no choice. Those are hard-wired bonds, not just to the team but to the country and the league in which it competes. And it surely amounts to a drop in class to turn off Lionel Messi and Barcelona because it's time to head out to Crew Stadium.
Yet an awful lot of Americans have convinced themselves it's better to ignore or even ridicule the league in their own land. I pity them. They are not wrong to regard MLS as something less than the European Champions League, Premier League or Serie A, but that's not the point. The live experience still trumps all else.
Three decades ago, when I lived in San Diego, I'd see all manner of Brits, Europeans and Mexicans head out to see the Sockers do battle with the Cosmos, Sting, Rowdies, Sounders, Timbers, et al. The Sockers weren't their team but soccer was their game, and the quality and atmosphere were good enough to quaff the experience in person.
At one game, behind me sat a father and his son from London on holiday. They knew little about the league or the players, but were fascinated by the American game.
I asked them which team they supported. "Fulham," the son replied. I must have regarded them with a quizzical look, for the father added, 'Oh, they've never won anything."
Last time, I checked, they still hadn't. But the quaint confines of Craven Cottage remain one of the most scenic settings to watch a game, though the team's struggles to stay in the Premier League are hardly stuff to scintillate the soul.
We live in a different era, one in which soccer bombards our TVs and computer screens. It's all too easy to lounge on the couch or sit behind the screen or gather at the bar, watch a game in a stadium far removed, and pretend it's the real thing. Fortunately, the word is spreading in at least a few MLS cities that getting out to the game can be just as much fun.
Seattle topped 20,000 season tickets sold this week, and it's sure bet that a lot of those people follow the game in other parts of the world. Many Sounders FC officials see parallels with Toronto; both teams are backed by the most powerful and successful sports operation in the city - the NFL Seahawks and NHL Maple Leafs, respectively - yet both are also situated in diverse, cosmopolitan cities well-steeped in the world's game.
If MLS teams can persuade more savvy fans to sample the MLS product, it's far more likely than not that said fans won't be seduced and mesmerized by magical flicks, blitzkrieg counters, and brilliant combination play.
But what can bring them back and make them care is the noise and the buzz and the excitement bubbling in the stands, the sense that something real and tangible and intense is happening. More is needed than fog machines and sirens and gimmicks to artificially pump up the crowd; it must respond as well as provoke, and only fierce competition on the field, where every point means something, can supply that.
Critics point, rightly, to the caliber of play as a major MLS drawback. No question, but just as important is the intensity of play, and as the number of teams increase, the odds of making the playoffs decrease, and so is ratcheted up the importance of each game, and each point. So the competition to be better and get better players intensifies, which feeds down to the field.
A lot of fans in a lot of MLS cities have taken it upon themselves to get in the game, and be part of the game, and have a good time. Whether or not David Beckham returns to MLS and when, if ever, Raul or Thierry Henry comes to these shores, won't matter so much if the staple of MLS is tough, honest, competitive soccer. On any day, there will be flair, but on every day, there must be heart.