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The other 'football': More in US heading to games

It was so snowy this week in Utah that Real Salt Lake had to move indoors to practice for Saturday's championship match against Sporting Kansas City.

Welcome to the other football.

Major League Soccer, now 17 years old, is holding its Cup finale on a weekend when most Americans are thinking about college football conference championships or the NFL.

Not everyone, however, spends the fall focused on a ball you carry with your hands.

David Beckham No. 23 of the Los Angeles Galaxy chases after the ball during an MLS match against the Montreal Impact at the Olympic stadium.
Getty Images
David Beckham No. 23 of the Los Angeles Galaxy chases after the ball during an MLS match against the Montreal Impact at the Olympic stadium.

"This year we had a game that went head to head with BYU and University of Utah football, and we sold out our stadium, so that says a lot," said RSL's head coach, Jason Kreis.

Don't look now, but soccer is achieving some major goals. MLS attendance now outranks the NBA and NHL on a per-game basis, according to numbers put out by the individual leagues. And MLS is expanding, with hopes to reach 24 teams by 2020.

"We started in 1996," said Chris Klein, a former player who is now president of the LA Galaxy. "Quite honestly, there were a lot of moments where people who were outside didn't know if our league was going to make it."

Now many teams no longer play in football stadiums, but have their own soccer-specific venues. A few, like the Galaxy, are even making money. "We had 4,500 season ticket holders," said Klein. "We now have well over 9,000, marching toward 10,000."

A major turning point was when David Beckham joined the Galaxy in 2007. This season he left, and the English star's departure had a negative effect on attendance and merchandise sales. "I think we had one of the most popular people in the world leave our team this year, and attendance is down," Klein said. "But it's only down 4 percent, so we feel pretty good about that story."

The Galaxy has the second-highest attendance in the league, averaging 22,000 fans a game. The Seattle Sounders are way out in front, with double that number. The Sounders outsell the Seattle Mariners.

"I think in particular in markets like Salt Lake City and Portland [Ore.] and Seattle, you have a real niche of a sports fan—people that are just into soccer," said Kreis.

The Galaxy has been trying to create a stronger bond with fans through short documentaries called "Be A Pro," which highlight the various challenges of being a professional soccer player. Klein said the slick videos cost the team "six figures," and they also showcase the products of the Galaxy's main sponsor, Herbalife.

When asked if the battle over Herbalife between investors Carl Icahn and Bill Ackman has had any impact on the Galaxy, Klein shook his head: "We've seen no effect."

A lot has changed for soccer in the U.S. besides the arrival of European stars like Beckham. A generation has grown up playing soccer, and now enjoys watching it.

"There are over 50 million soccer fans in this country," said Klein. "I think now what we're coming to is the realization that there are enough people in this country to keep this a successful sport."

"We're still behind baseball and football, and I believe we always will be, and that's OK," added Kreis.

However, one goal eludes soccer. "I think the next big challenge is getting people to watch our game on TV," said Klein. This weekend's Cup will be broadcast on ESPN, as will next year's World Cup in Brazil, and NBC Sports has been broadcasting many of the MLS games and Premiere League games from England.

"The average attendance in our league, the number of season ticket holders, all the stuff that's happening in the building on a week-to-week basis has been moving in a positive direction," said Kreis, "but the television ratings have not moved very positively."

He thinks it will take five to 10 more years for soccer in the U.S. to reach its full potential. "I'm hopeful that one day we'll be like those old NFL players sitting there and saying, 'Can you remember when it was so bad, and now it's so good?' "

In the meantime, Kreis is looking for victory on the field this weekend, and maybe Real Salt Lake will score financially. "I believe in 2013 the club might actually make some money."

Disclosure: Comcast is the owner of NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC and NBC.

—By CNBC's Jane Wells; Follow her on Twitter: @janewells

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