Slowly but surely, the U.S. is turning itself into a global soccer power, with lots of help from an emerging professional league that's developing talent and advancing its clout in the sport.
Last month, Didier Drogba, a 39-year-old Ivory Coast native who spent years playing for professional clubs in Britain,
Much like English soccer icon David Beckham's much ballyhooed debut with the L.A. Galaxy in 2007, Drogba's arrival in Phoenix stokes excitement about developing U.S. soccer's secondary tier. In a country saturated with sports, soccer stokes relatively little enthusiasm domestically, and until recently the U.S. has lacked global heft.
Big name signings aside, the USL is developing its own homegrown stars that can compete alongside the world's best. Though the second tier remains a work in progress, the playing field is slowly shifting. The USL has blossomed into a 30-member outfit, more than doubling the number of clubs that existed in 2012.
A 2013 partnership struck between the USL and MLS, in which MLS reserves would integrate with USL pro teams, has been a big catalyst behind growing attendance figures and attracting talent to the U.S. market. Currently, nine MLS clubs have their own second-tier team, something that USL President Jake Edwards recently told CNBC would help boost new investor and public interest in the game.
"We work closely with those clubs to identify best practices, and to identify ways to make it drive awareness and drive attendance," Edwards said. Teams like the New York Red Bulls — which until 2014 featured French forward Thierry Henry as its marquee player — have begun expanding staff and recently relocated their USL squad to nearby New Jersey.
"They've moved the team now to Montclair, and they've invested heavily into that stadium, and are trying to create a new brand and a new identity in that community," Edwards added.