A Tale of Two Nielsens Shows Major League Soccer in Decline
Did you know that the 18th iteration of the MLS Cup was played this weekend between Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake? Did you know that Salt Lake City and Kansas City had professional soccer teams? Did you know that there is a Kansas City in Kansas directly across from Kansas City in Missouri? If you did not, that’s OK. You are not the few; you are the many. The Cup Final, won by Sporting Kansas City in Kansas by a marathon penalty shootout, was memorable, but not mythological. The weather conditions were historically arctic, often dipping as low as a record-setting 7 degrees Fahrenheit when the wind blew. This past Saturday’s MLS Cup Final was watched by roughly half a million Americans, down 44% from last year’s final, making it the least watched MLS Final ever. This could be attributed to the final’s poor scheduling–it was broadcast alongside the University of Kansas basketball team’s game against Colorado and the ACC Football Championship game between Auburn and Missouri. But to chalk up the issue to a choice between football and futbol is lazy and inaccurate. It does not explain why the popularity of the US Men’s National Soccer Team and European soccer has steadily risen in America, while our homegrown Major League Soccer has not. It does not justify why a re-run of Everybody Loves Raymond, broadcast at the same time as the MLS Cup final on TBS, received the same 0.5 score from the Nielsen TV rating system. Perhaps the waning popularity of the MLS can be explained through another Nielsen–Sporting Kansas City’s Danish keeper Jimmy Nielsen.
Nielsen, a 36-year-old Dane who made a career for himself in the Danish Superliga, wore a bright pink keeper’s jersey and leg warmers Saturday, making him look more like a background extra in an 80s’ workout video than Kansas City’s defensive Cup final hero. Nielsen, like other former European soccer players (Beckham, Keane, Henry), resurrected himself in the MLS after his dwindling skills and athleticism weren’t good enough for Europe. Nielsen’s ebbed quality was obvious in his stilted movements and rotund figure (not to mention his platinum blonde hair and eyebrows). It was like watching one of those cool dads who hosts house parties for their kids, wears a scarf when it isn’t cold out and smokes Black & Mild’s with 16-year-olds, play intramural soccer. In other words, I am not surprised that no one wants to watch the MLS. It lacks the grace and glory of European soccer. There was one quality moment during the match. Kyle Beckerman, Real Salt Lake’s midfielder, a white guy with dreadlocks who has a room dedicated to vintage didgeridoos, supplied a no-look chip to assist Salt Lake’s only goal of the match. But one quality moment does not justify a match that took over 120 minutes of both sides booting the ball back and forth to decide a winner. If there is hope for the MLS, it must not establish itself as a retirement community for former European stars. The protagonist of the game cannot be an over-the-hill Danish keeper whose platinum blonde eyebrows and hair makes him looks like a clean-shaven Guy Fieri. // Isaac Eger