After World Cup, MLS looks to steady growth toward goal of becoming top league by 2022

Even before millions of people packed into outdoor fan parties, ran out to bars for long lunches and sneaked peeks of games at their offices during the Americans' World Cup run, Major League Soccer began thinking about how to convert some of those fans into supporters for its own teams.

Playing its 19th season and preparing for an expansion to 24 teams in its post-David Beckham era, MLS has grown in support and interest but remains a feeder league — with most young star players it produces leaving for more lucrative contracts in Europe.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber wants to change that quickly, and it only helps his cause when stars such as Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley come home to play on U.S. soil.

"We want to be thought of the way the Premier League is thought of, Serie A is thought of, La Liga is thought of, the Bundesliga is thought of," Garber said. "When people think about the best leagues in the world, everybody knows who they are, and we want to be one of those leagues."

Dempsey and Bradley each returned to MLS from Europe in the past year. Jermain Defoe joined Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill as the league's top international attractions. David Villa and Kaka already are signed for 2015 and Frank Lampard may be on the way, too.

Garber has set 2022 as the year for MLS to achieve his goal and says that while the league has come a long way, it still has a lot further to go.

To attract top players, MLS must pay top prices. Part of the funds will come from new eight-year broadcasting deals by MLS and the U.S. Soccer Federation with ESPN, Fox and Univision that start next season and will average more than $90 million annually.

MLS says sponsorship revenue has nearly doubled since 2010 for the league and its marketing arm, Soccer United Marketing. Among the corporate partners investing in soccer are Adidas, Allstate, AT&T, General Motors' Chevrolet division and Continental Tire.

From Seattle to Salt Lake City, the California cities of Los Angeles and San Jose, from Kansas City to Houston and up to Toronto, general sports fans watched their local MLS players along with the die-hards during the World Cup.

Now, MLS' tallest task is to get those same supporters — and more — to attend league games each weekend. MLS was much more central to this year's tournament, sending 22 players for an increase from six in 2010.

"Any time there's a World Cup it's going to put a focus on soccer for this country, and if there are guys playing in MLS it can only help boost the sport in general and also our league," said Real Salt Lake midfielder Kyle Beckerman, who started three games in Brazil.

People now in decision-making positions got there in the era after the 1994 World Cup in the U.S., which drew a record 3.6 million fans. They've viewed shifts in the taste of American sports fans and the population as a whole, where there has been a growing Hispanic population.

In addition to 16.5 million who watched the United States' World Cup loss to Belgium on ESPN, there were 5.1 million tuned in on Spanish-language Univision. The 24.7 million total watching the U.S. draw against Portugal topped the averages of the most recent World Series and NBA Finals.

"We have been dealing with a generation of soccer moms and a massive youth participation," Garber said. "They now have gone through a generational turn. They are now influencers. They grew up with the game. It's certainly not foreign to them. They care about it in ways that their parents did not and now they are becoming MLS fans and becoming soccer fans overall."

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. It 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.

"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 said. "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 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."