The revival of Major League Soccer in California

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By MATT NIKSA
College Contributor Network

As someone who has grown up in California their entire life and has played competitive soccer since age five, I can attest that the youth soccer scene in California is extremely strong. Want proof? Go to GotSoccer.com and look up "Boys U19 National Team Rankings."

The National Team Rankings list is a list comprised of the best boys under-19 club teams in the nation. Of the top 10 teams, six are from California, and five of those six are based in the "California North" region, where I live.

Yet there is an interesting contrast between the youth soccer scene in California and the professional soccer scene in California. While California's premier soccer clubs have garnered attention from the national media, the two main professional soccer teams, the San Jose Earthquakes and the Los Angeles Galaxy, have not been able to capitalize on California's upward trending soccer market. According to US Youth Soccer's Key Statistics page, 321,575 Californians registered to play soccer during the 2013-2014 year, almost twice as many as Massachusetts, the state with the second most kids who registered to play soccer.

There is a huge number of young soccer players playing in California, a new generation of possible soccer fans living close both MLS teams to utilize, but according to empireofsoccer.com the Earthquakes had the second-lowest attendance in 2014, with an average of 14,947.

While the Earthquakes have struggled with attendance for years, their California rival has had great success over the last half decade. The Galaxy won the MLS Cup in 2014 and were third in attendance in 2014. However, according to empireofsoccer.com, attendance in 2014 was 1,000 less than it was in 2013, and ever since superstar David Beckham left the Galaxy, attendance has gone down significantly. It doesn't help that the stadium, which can hold up to 27,000 people, makes a crowd, even as large as 21,000, look small. With the retirement of legend Landon Donovan and two new teams in the Western Conference, and the fact that current star Robbie Keane is 35 years old, Galaxy attendance in 2015 was very likely going to decrease again. What the Galaxy needed before the start of the 2015 season was a superstar, a Beckham-esque player who could draw the fans in, and help attract younger fans to the Stubhub Center.

However, both teams have done a fantastic job in raising their attendance. For the Earthquakes, they first made a splash by signing striker Innocent Emeghara, a Swiss international who had spent time in France and Italy. It was only the fourth Designated Player, or a player over the age of 23 who earns a salary of more than $436,250, signing in club history, and it brought significant optimism for an Earthquakes team that had struggled to score during its 2014 campaign. With all of their designated player slots now filled, the Earthquakes made their biggest offseason move yet: opening their new soccer stadium, Avaya Stadium.

A proposal for a new Earthquakes stadium had been in the works since June of 2007, and after almost eight years, the stadium was opened to the public on February 28, 2015, with its first match being played between the Earthquakes and, ironically, the Galaxy. The 18,000-seat venue is a European style stadium filled with 21st century features, like a standing room supporters' terrace, the largest outdoor bar in North America, and 16 suites.

With the new stadium and the new designated player on its roster, the Earthquakes were primed for a bounce back 2015. Although the Earthquakes have disappointed this season (they sit eighth in the Western Conference, seven points outside of the last playoff spot), attendance is up 20.43 percent from 2014, and every home game has been a sellout for the Earthquakes. The Earthquakes still have a ways to go before being the great, championship-contending team they were in 2012, but the new stadium and the new star in town will have fans flocking to watch the Quakes for years to come.

The Galaxy, on the other hand, have taken a different approach to increase their attendance and market themselves to a growing California soccer market. Ticket reseller Stubhub signed a six-year naming rights deal with AEG (Anschutz Entertainment Group) to rename the Home Depot Center the Stubhub Center in 2013, and the Galaxy are under contract to play at the Stubhub Center until 2019. With no future plans for a new stadium in the works, the Galaxy decided to attract new fans through method number two: signing new players.

Enter Steven Gerrard, who was signed to an 18-month, Designated Player contract in early January. Gerrard played 17 seasons for Liverpool and has won 10 major trophies over the past 15 years. Although he is at the twilight stages of his career, he made 41 appearances for Liverpool in all competitions in the 2014-2015 season, and he had played with Robbie Keane during Keane's tenure in the Premier League.

Most importantly, Gerrard brought national media attention to the Galaxy, rivaling the media attention that Beckham received when he signed back in 2007. While the Galaxy made headlines with the Gerrard signing, they weren't content with one star player, and made even bigger news this month with the signing of Mexican international Giovani Dos Santos. The 26-year old not only brings world-class experience (he had spent his entire career in the European top flight before making the move abroad), but from a financial standpoint, he will help bring Mexican fans/fans of the Mexican national team to the Stubhub Center to watch one of the best players on the national team in Dos Santos.

These two new signings and the Galaxy's great run of form have steadily increased attendance in 2015, with attendance up 3.28 percent from last year. The Galaxy just set an attendance record for largest attendance of a soccer match involving an MLS team on Tuesday, when former teammates Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez reunited as Barcelona FC played the Los Angeles Galaxy played in the Rose Bowl in front of a crowd of 93,000. With the Galaxy on a great run of form (winners of four of their last five), and the fact that their two new signings and other star players coming back from the Gold Cup will be available for head coach Bruce Arena soon, don't be surprised if the Galaxy greatly increase attendance from last year, sell out the rest of this year's home games, and sell more season tickets than ever for next year.

Last week, the two teams faced off each other at the Stubhub Center in Los Angeles. It was a full capacity crowd of 27,000, with many LA fans watching the game to see the Galaxy debut of Gerrard. For the depleted Earthquakes, their new signing Innocent Emeghara was out of the lineup, after sustaining an injury on May 1, ruling him out for four to six months.

Gerrard exited in the 88th minute to a standing ovation, and in the end, the Galaxy won 5-2. Although this was one soccer match played between two MLS teams, this match represented more. It represented a new Galaxy, a team with an even bigger fanbase, an even better team, and a club with hope for a great future. This match represented the potential of California's burgeoning soccer market, as represented by the sell-out crowd willing to see Gerrard, and the sell-out crowd who watched the Galaxy play Barcelona at the Rose Bowl.

Finally, for the Earthquakes, it represented a team which has struggled to outshine the southern California neighbors, but with the beautiful Avaya Stadium, a new coach in Dominic Kinnear and a player with great potential in Innocent Emeghara, the Earthquakes should look forward to a bright future and an already-growing fanbase that will support them through good times and bad.

Matt Niksa is a freshman at Boston University. He is a loyal Chelsea FC soccer fan and is studying journalism.

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