Just how popular is Major League Soccer in 2014? It all depends on how you examine the North American top-flight. Television ratings for regular season and postseason MLS matches don't leap off of pages or computer screens, but league officials can brag about reported attendance figures. MLS got to the 19,000 fans per game mark for the first time in the history of the league, averaging crowds of 19,149 for regular season contests. Pop the champagne, right?
Not exactly. As has been the case for several years, and will likely continue to be a trend, one club brought in over 43,000 fans for every home contest. That team naturally drove up MLS average attendance figures. At the opposite end of the spectrum is a different Western Conference side that, if we're being honest about it, was lucky to bring in 1,000 paying customers every time it played in an arena that it shared with a much more successful "rival."
Critics of MLS would be quick to point out that reported attendance numbers for matches don't always pass so-called "eye tests." Those individuals would do well to remember that every significant sports league fudges attendance figures now and again. The Cleveland Indians, for example, will often claim to have 20,000 people in attendance when only half of that figure seems to be at Progressive Field. Part of it has to do with paying customers versus those who show up, and part is about teams and organizations saving face.
In the end, more people paid money to watch MLS games live and in-person than ever before. That is only a good thing for the league moving forward. MLS may struggle to get attention from national TV viewers and from stations such as ESPN, but a majority of clubs are doing just fine at the local level. There are no legitimate reasons to believe that league attendance won't again be on the rise in 2015.
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18 Chivas USA: 7,063
Go back and look at pictures of Chivas USA home games from 2014, like the one above. Doing so would lead you to be very skeptical about Chivas managing to average over 7,000 fans in attendance this past season. Chivas failed to attract a substantial local fan base during its existence, and is one of the biggest failures in the history of MLS. Luckily, the team no longer exists. The club has been replaced by Los Angeles Football Club, a team that will begin playing in 2017.
17 San Jose Earthquakes: 14,947
It all went wrong for San Jose in 2014. The defense of the Earthquakes was a liability throughout the campaign, and the team's attack did little to find the back of the net with any consistency. San Jose entered such a tailspin that they finished below Chivas, now out of business, in the standings. All of that negativity aside, the 'Quakes will be playing in their shiny new stadium next season. They should be in for an attendance spike, and fans who pay to watch San Jose will expect better from the club in 2015.
16 Colorado Rapids: 15,082
Colorado appeared to be a true playoff contender during the first half of the campaign. The Rapids hung in the upper half of the Western Conference standings, posting multiple positive results along the way. Then came a summer swoon from which Colorado never recovered. The Rapids managed to take two -- yes, two -- points from the team's final 14 matches. They were 18 points off of a playoff spot following the last day of the regular season.
15 Chicago Fire: 17,076
Do you prefer it when professional sporting events end without there being a definitive victor? If so, then the 2014 Fire were for you. Chicago finished the campaign with 18 draws in MLS play. That is more than a single tie every other match. Four of the team's six overall wins during the year did come at home, so the Fire gave supporters some bright spots during what was mostly a forgettable season for the team.
14 New England Revolution: 16,681
That New England continue to play in a National Football League stadium, that belongs to the New England Patriots, is an absolute disgrace, and that is especially true considering the season had by the club. The Revolution were a revelation this season, surviving a bit of a dry spell and finishing just four points below DC United at the top of the Eastern Conference standings. Lee Nguyen, who deserves a call-up from United States Men's National Team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, will likely be a MLS Most Valuable Player candidate.
13 FC Dallas: 16,816
Dallas began the 2014 season as one of the hotter teams in MLS and as Supporters' Shield contenders. Their form cooled as temperatures warmed, as if often the case for the club, and they were unable to keep pace with the likes of LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders. FCD ultimately fell to fourth in the Western Conference table, which forced them to play in the Wild Card contest versus Vancouver Whitecaps. Dallas won that match via a controversial penalty decision.
12 Columbus Crew: 16,881
The Crew will be looking to show that they are not just a middle-of-the-road MLS side this time around. Columbus surprised many by rising above the New York Red Bulls and Sporting Kansas City in the Eastern Conference standings, and the Crew admirably finished third in the conference. Columbus underwent somewhat of a marketing reboot this fall, getting a new crest and kinda/sorta a new name (Columbus Crew Soccer Club). The Crew's rebrand and solid record could lead to an attendance bump for 2015.
11 DC United: 17,030
RFK Stadium, where United play their home contests, is a pit and is considered the worst venue in all of MLS. That DCU aren't lower on this list is a testament to the devotion of the most loyal members of the team's fan base. United completed a worst-to-first turnaround in 2014, finishing the regular season atop the Eastern Conference table. They will have to go through long-time rivals New York Red Bulls if they are to make a MLS Cup this fall.
10 Montreal Impact: 17,421
The shine is off the apple in Montreal, as the club experienced a significant attendance drop-off. Why fewer people paid to watch the Impact live and in-person isn't a mystery. Montreal finished the season on just 28 points, and the Impact had the worst record in all of MLS. Merely existing in the city is no longer enough for the Impact to draw locals to 17 home games a year. Montreal must have a successful offseason, one that includes bringer younger talent to the club, to remain relevant.
9 Philadelphia Union: 17,631
The Union have, since joining MLS five years ago, had one of the most loyal fan bases in the league. Those people are now demanding more from a club that has yet to win anything of merit while in the top flight. Philadelphia lost paying customers in 2014, and the fact that the team failed to qualify for the postseason tournament isn't going to help matters. The Union may need an overhaul, that includes changes in the front office, if they are to get over the hump.
8 New York Red Bulls: 19,421
It wouldn't be a MLS calendar year without the Red Bulls being surrounded by some sort of uncertainty. There are rumors that Red Bull is done with its MLS investment, reports that have been refuted by the club. Whispers have been swirling about for roughly 18 months that captain Thierry Henry will call time his playing career after New York's postseason run concludes. There is also speculation that designated player Tim Cahill could be seeking a return to the Premier League or back home to Australia.
Never change, Red Bulls.
7 Sporting Kansas City: 20,003
Sporting KC offered another reminder that defending a MLS Cup title and also remaining relevant in competitions such as CONCACAF Champions League and the US Open Cup is no easy task. Once favorites to emerge as the regular season champions of the Eastern Conference, Kansas City fell off in the latter portion of the campaign. They finished fifth in the conference standings, and KC went on to blow a 1-0 lead against the New York Red Bulls in a one-and-done playoff game, a loss that ended KC's season.
7. Houston Dynamo: 20,117
Houston will be a fascinating team to examine next season as it pertains to home attendance figures. The Dynamo did not, as they've been able to do in previous seasons, manage to back into the playoffs. Dominic Kinnear had one foot out the door before the end of October. Houston will, per terms of the league's upcoming realignment, be moving to the Western Conference, the better of the two divisions, in 2015. The Dynamo could be in for bad times.
6 Real Salt Lake: 20,351
Salt Lake continue to be a model MLS franchise despite facing multiple setbacks in 2014. Long-time head coach Jason Kreis left the club to become the first head coach of expansion side New York City Football Club, a team that will begin playing in MLS next season. RSL also had to deal with several key players being called up for international duties leading up to and during the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Salt Lake nevertheless persevered, finishing the campaign third in the Western Conference standings.
5 Vancouver Whitecaps: 20,408
Vancouver had the team's best average attendance during its current MLS run of four years, and the Whitecaps rewarded those who paid to watch the team play up north by winning nine home contests. Vancouver's season came to a painful end with that Wild Card loss at Dallas, but the Whitecaps do have hope for the future.
4 Portland Timbers: 20,806
Worried that the Timbers not making the playoffs may result in an attendance dip next season? Anybody who is can quickly put their minds at ease. The Timbers share something with NFL franchises in that Portland has a waiting list for regular season tickets. Those running the club are looking for ways to add seats to Providence Park in order to fill it with even more paying customers. The Timbers are going to be just fine moving forward, although head coach Caleb Porter may not survive another season without a playoff berth.
3 LA Galaxy: 21,258
Is it really that big of a surprise that the Galaxy are drawing fewer fans per game without having David Beckham on the pitch? Beckham is an international superstar at a level that is way above that of anybody who is paid to play soccer for a North American club. He is one of the most-recognized individuals on the planet, and Beckham was a proven road draw when LA would play away from home. Fans who traveled to StubHub Center to watch Becks aren't coming back, and everybody needs to embrace that reality.
2 Toronto FC: 22,086
The tradition that is Toronto FC being a nightmare for supporters continued in 2014. Things started out well enough during the winter when the club snagged designated players Gilberto, Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley. Toronto also acquired Brazil No. 1 goalkeeper Julio Cesar on a loan. TFC fell apart after a hot start, Cesar never returned to the club after the World Cup, and it's been rumored that all three of the team's DPs may make moves away from Toronto in January.
That fan base deserves better.
1 Seattle Sounders: 43,734
Seattle are the only MLS team that has real reasons to play home games in a NFL stadium. The Sounders pack thousands upon thousands of fans into CenturyLink Field every time they play a home MLS contest, and Seattle continue to post attendance marks that humble every other club in the league. It doesn't hurt that the Sounders had a great team in 2014. Seattle won the Supporters' Shield by defeating LA Galaxy 2-0 on the final Saturday of the regular season, and the Sounders are favorites to win MLS Cup this fall.
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