Michelle Kaufman

Michelle Kaufman: MLS proves naysayers wrong as it begins its 19th season

So much for the naysayers back in the late 1990s who thought Major League Soccer didn’t have staying power. Here we are, entering season No. 19, with exciting expansion teams in New York and Orlando set to begin in Year 20 — and plans for a David Beckham team in Miami a few years after that.

Under commissioner Don Garber, the league is stable and growing. A survey released Friday found that MLS tied Major League Baseball for popularity among U.S. sports fans aged 12-17 with 18 percent calling themselves “avid” MLS fans. Only 9 percent said they were NHL fans. The NFL still rules with teens at 38.8 percent, and the NBA isn’t far behind at 30.11.

But MLS is right there with baseball, and that says something.

Toronto FC’s offseason signing of U.S. national team star midfielder Michael Bradley is huge news for the league. And the Seattle Sounders’ acquisition of U.S. forward Clint Dempsey from the English Premier League is also a step in the right direction. Both will be expected to have a huge impact on their teams — and their jerseys surely will be fan favorites.

The Sounders averaged 44,038 fans last season, proof that if done correctly, MLS can draw huge and passionate crowds.

Just like four years ago, this season will be interrupted in the summer for the World Cup. And the first three months of the season won’t really have everyone’s full attention because all that matters to soccer fans this year is the World Cup, which is why MLS really should consider adopting the same schedule as the rest of the world.

But that’s a column for another day.

The top U.S. players in MLS will be preoccupied in the coming months, as the United States plays an exhibition against Mexico on April 2. Then, coach Jurgen Klinsmann will open camp in mid-May. The team will play three send-off games against Azerbaijan May 27 in San Francisco, against Turkey on June 1 in New York and against Nigeria on June 7 in Jacksonville.

Once the World Cup is over, MLS fans can refocus on some of the top story lines.

Former Tottenham forward Jermain Defoe is now in Toronto. American Maurice Edu is back from Stoke and playing for Philadelphia. Some young coaches, including former Miami Fusion player Pablo Mastroeni at Colorado, will get to prove themselves.

And veteran coach Bruce Arena continues to be a force out West with the L.A. Galaxy. Even with the retirement of Beckham, the team has star power in Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane.

The Galaxy has won two MLS Cups the past three seasons, and Donovan is on pace to become the league’s all-time leading scorer.

Portland and Real Salt Lake are the other favorites in the West. In the East, look for New York and defending champion Kansas City to be the teams to watch.

Kansas City, under the direction of coach Peter Vermes, looks just as strong as last year — maybe stronger with the addition of winger Sal Zizzo, acquired in a trade with Portland. Zizzo, 26, spent a few years at Hannover in the German Bundesliga earlier in his career and is expected to have a huge impact on the team.

Kansas City also has Graham Zusi of the U.S. national team, who will most certainly spend much of his summer in Brazil but will be back in plenty of time to help his MLS team reach the playoffs.

Despite the World Cup distractions, and loss of megastar Beckham, there is plenty to watch for this MLS season.

And South Florida fans, eager for an expansion team in a few years, ought to start paying attention.