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Our City: Will a USMNT-less World Cup Hurt MLS?

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Major League Soccer has always appreciated a burst of attendance in World Cup years. Can the league count on it when the home country isn’t in the competition?

Media Tour ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images

Just less than a month from now Russia will take the field against Saudi Arabia at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow to kick off the 2018 FIFA World Cup. That match will begin a month-long global soccer festival that is punctuated by city-center-sized watch parties and a renewed enthusiasm for the world’s game.

Past World Cups have seen a boost to all things soccer in the United States as hardcore fans and casual observers alike change work schedules and alter social calendars in an effort to take in as much soccer as possible. The steady diet of soccer tends to provide a spike in interest in the game, with parks filling up with pick-up games, recreational leagues maxing out registration, and soccer kits becoming the “it” thing to be wearing on college campuses and in bars, and nightclubs. In the past, Major League Soccer has experienced a World Cup bounce.

In 2002, the league had a 5.8% bump, including an average attendance of 15,822. In 2006, the league reversed a -2.9% move down in attendance the year before to see a 2.6% growth in the number of fans through the turnstiles. The trend continued in 2010 as the league had 4% more fans than the previous year, after a 2.6% dip the year before. In 2010, the league also hosted four million fans for the first time in its history. Finally, 2014 is a similar story with a 2.9% bump after a decline the season before.

While a number of factors add to the ebb and flow of MLS attendance, you can’t argue that World Cups don’t give a bump to the league. These attendance boosts once every four years that come from soccer having a spotlight have helped to make the years where attendance dips into one-off anomalies and not downward trends.

The lingering question this year is, of course, will the lack of the U.S. Men’s National Team matter to World Cup viewing in America? The devoted soccer fans will of course tune in, as will residents with ties to other counties competing. Will the casual sports fans pay attention to this World Cup — those who can appreciate a big event and get swept up into the occasion? And can any of this translate to their bringing a few work friends or the family to their local MLS stadium to take in a game?

These are massive questions this year for MLS. While attendance is trending higher as of late, that includes attendance magnets like Orlando City, New York City FC, Atlanta United, LAFC, and Minnesota (when it isn’t snowing), but many clubs are struggling right now. A World Cup attendance bump could do a world of good for teams like the Philadelphia Union, FC Dallas, and the Colorado Rapids.

The U.S. World Cup media and fan formula has been to support the USMNT until it sputters out of the tournament after giving a hopefully respectable account of the United States, and then support favorite teams like Brazil, Germany, Holland, or Argentina as they compete for the trophy. The long-term health of Major League Soccer might just be counting on it.

Will you be following the World Cup with the same level of intensity as usual? What about your friends who are casual fans? Do you think they will be as interested?