Cobi Jones was surrounded by reminders of just how far soccer in the United States has come.
As he sat in the Brew Hall at Allianz Field on Friday, to his left was the splendid soccer-specific home of Minnesota United. To his right, just outside, a large touring bus was parked, part of a skills competition promotional tour for the Major League Soccer All-Star game coming to St. Paul in August.
It was a far cry from the early days of MLS, which launched in 1996 and was largely played in more-than-half-empty football stadiums. Jones, one of the league pioneers who played 12 seasons from 1996-2007 with the Los Angeles Galaxy, is grateful for the progress he has seen.
"It says that we've made it, to a degree. This is where you want to go. You want to build stadiums like this," Jones said on Tuesday's Daily Delivery podcast. "The league, back in its day, all of us old timers, say it was in its infancy. Yes there were sacrifices to be made but it was so we could make it to points like this, to see a league that's healthy and that is continuing to grow and only getting better."
The growth shows up in league expansion. There were just 10 teams when the league started in 1996. Now there are 28 teams with a 29th in St. Louis set to join in 2023.
It shows up in attendance. Average attendance in the league dipped as low as 13,756 in 2000 as initial interest faded. Average attendance was over 21,000 every year from 2015-2019 before COVID hit, and no team drew fewer than 15,000 fans on average in 2015 and 2017. Minnesota United is part of that recent success story.
With the U.S. Men's National Team on a seeming upswing after having qualified for the World Cup later this year and with the U.S. set to host the 2026 World Cup, there is even more potential for growth going forward.
"The next steps, we're kind of in that process. We have the big (media) deal with MLS that just came through," Jones said. For me, it is the continued growth and success at the national team level. ... There's always exponential growth after a World Cup."