But only a fraction of the people watching the World Cup have tuned into MLS. ESPN2's regular-season average dropped from 259,000 in 2012 to 206,000 last year, the first season after Beckham's departure. They've rebounded to 251,000 this year, and the league hopes having regular time slots as part of the new contracts will provide a boost.
Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based consulting firm SportsCorp, says the league should be happy with steady if not spectacular growth.
"Major League Soccer is still not a top American sport but it has elevated itself dramatically over the last four, five years. But it is still a select market, relative niche sport and likely will be for the foreseeable future, and that has to do with the predisposition of the American market more than anything else," Ganis said. "There is really nothing MLS can do to change that. They can enhance their position as they have, but it will not likely be viewed as one of the great American sports in our lifetimes or the next for a variety of reasons that cannot be changed simply by better management."
U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, already signed through the 2018 World Cup, would like to see a longer MLS season. That will help players develop stamina to compete at World Cups with stars from big clubs that have 60 games or more per year in leagues, cups and European competitions.
"Every year there's another step forward, another step forward," Klinsmann said. "The league is growing, not only in the infrastructure side, the financial side but on the level of play side."
Still, Klinsmann has encouraged his top players to strive for bigger clubs, to want to play in the European Champions League, the world's top club competition. He didn't seem to be 100 percent in favor of deals that brought Dempsey to Seattle last August and Bradley to Toronto this past winter.
Yet those deals would never have even been contemplated by the league five years ago.
MLS player compensation totaled $42 million in 2007 and has risen to $115 million this year, according to salaries released by the MLS Players Union and analyzed by The Associated Press. The average grew from $113,800 to $208,100.
Dempsey has $6,695,000 in guaranteed compensation with Seattle and Bradley $6.5 million with Toronto. But the median — the figure where an equal number of players are above and below — is just under $92,000. The minimum salaries of $48,500 (for the first 24 players on each roster) and $36,500 (for the final five) figure to be a point of contention in negotiations to replace the collective bargaining agreement that expires after this season.
Having more top players and even middle-roster grinders should increase the level of play and the buzz from Seattle to Salt Lake City, the California cities of Los Angeles and San Jose, from Kansas City to Houston and up to Toronto.
"It's a huge thing. It just shows where this league is at right now, the progress, the quality of play," San Jose Earthquakes coach Mark Watson. "We want the best players to play here. There's always going to be the lure of the big clubs in Europe, that will always be there, but we want our best players playing here. To have them back, to add to the quality of the league, to see MLS players in the World Cup, it's something that we're really happy about."
The Earthquakes are building a soccer-specific stadium, scheduled to open in 2015. So is Orlando City, which joins the league next along with New York City FC as MLS reaches 21 teams. That will increase the league's soccer-specific venues to 15.
Teams have thrived in the smaller, 18,000-to-27,000-seat arenas, where the color and noise of supporters stands out, much as it does in larger arenas in Europe and South America.
Garber defines the goals at their most pared down to: improve play, become more relevant in local markets and "work hard to make our teams financially viable and have a path towards profitability at some point."
About an hour after the Americans were eliminated, USSF President Sunil Gulati spoke in Salvador's Arena Fonte Nova and cautioned that growth will not be explosive, but steady. Gaining credibility, competitiveness and cash all takes time.
"We're not going to have the same level of interest obviously tomorrow or on July 14 that we did today. It's pretty simple," he said. "Once the U.S. team is out, ESPN's ratings will be a little bit different. The interest — there won't be the fan parties once the World Cup is over. We can't translate all of that into the league. No one can. But I think we'll see some bumps."
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