Major League Soccer (MLS), the United States’ top level soccer league, has grown exponentially from its founding until now. Just how and why has this league changed, and who is responsible?
1988: FIFA and a Promise
In 1988, FIFA awarded the 1994 World Cup to the United States of America. This World Cup, the 15th, was going to be a huge event. In order to complete the awarding process, US Soccer agreed to resurrect some sort of “Division 1” soccer league. That doesn’t sound like a regular, run-of-the-mill stipulation, so how did US Soccer go about constructing a whole new professional league from the ground up? The first step: finding a very savvy business man with a very savvy business mind to head up the project. Enter Alan Rothenberg, the president of the United States Soccer Federation. Rothenberg and his team started developing a plan to form what would eventually become the “MLS,” and in 1995 all of their hard work was finally recognized: Major League Soccer was born.
1996: A Bright Future?
Major League Soccer held their first ever game on April 6, 1996, between the San Jose Clash and DC United. Over 31,000 fans were in attendance. Many, including then MLS commissioner Doug Logan, admitted that the game itself “was a bit ragged in the early stages.” (1) But the point was not in the quality of the game play; the point was in the day itself which represented the successful launching of a new league. Alan Rothenberg said, “This was a dream day with a storybook finish. If I had had the audacity to write a script like that, I would have been scoffed at.” (2) Frank Dell’Apa, a renowned soccer writer for the Boston Globe, put another positive spin on the opening day. He noted that the MLS “has a enthusiastic and knowledgeable group of fans and a mix of players that could produce an interesting style of play. If this game was a test, MLS passed.” (3) Pretty good for a first day.
1997-2001: Steady Decline
After the inaugural season, attendance and general popularity of the league fell. The MLS lost over $250 million during its first five seasons. The league’s attempts to draw more revenue via expansion teams failed. The Miami Fusion and the Chicago Fire both signed on in 1998, but to no avail; Major League Soccer continued to lose money. In fact, the league was in such a rut, that they ended up firing Commissioner Doug Logan in 1999 and replacing him with former NFL executive Don Garber, the league’s current commissioner. Why couldn’t the MLS gain popularity? A big reason had to do with the United States Men’s National Team. Many members of the USMNT played in the MLS, and upon finishing dead last at the 1998 World Cup, the league’s overall quality was questioned. Major League Soccer was failing. So, with the league quickly losing money, credibility, and relevance, what was the next step?
2002: The World Cup and a Fresh Start
The 2002 World Cup was a savior for the MLS. The United States Men’s national team, as a huge underdog, made it all the way to the quarterfinals. After the tournament, soccer’s popularity in America skyrocketed; the American people were interested and invested in soccer once more. That quarterfinal finish nearly singlehandedly revived soccer in the United States of America. The same year, the 2002 MLS Cup Final proved just how much soccer had grown since 1996. 61,000 fans came to see that cup final – nearly 30,000 more fans than were in attendance for the very first MLS game. Major League Soccer was growing once again.
2003-2012: Expansion and Growth
This ten year period brought expansion to the league. Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA joined in 2005 and Toronto FC became the first Canadian team in 2007. The San Jose Earthquakes relocated to Houston and became the Houston Dynamo. San Jose (again), Seattle, Philadelphia, Vancouver, Portland, and Montreal all joined the league during this time. Due to the league’s growing popularity, Major League Soccer adopted the Designated Player Rule in 2007. The DPR or “David Beckham Rule” allows teams to sign a player above the league’s set salary cap in order to grow the both the team itself and the league’s overall reputation. David Beckham and the LA Galaxy were the first to utilize this rule. Other international starts like Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane, along with Beckham, increased Major League Soccer’s popularity exponentially.
2013-Now: Future Plans and Established Relevance
By 2013, the MLS had nearly become the league we see today. Two more clubs were introduced in 2015 (New York City FC and Orlando City), and it was announced that the league intends to eventually reach 28 clubs total. Plans for future expansion are already under way in Miami, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Minnesota. In addition to expansion, Major League Soccer has made a greater effort to re-sign many of the United States’ top national team players like Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Kyle Beckerman, Michael Bradley, Jermain Jones, and Graham Zusi. At the same time, the MLS pushed for many international stars to join their ranks. Players like Kaká, Giovanni dos Santos, Pirlo, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Drogba, David Villa, and the MLS’ current top man Sebastian Giovinco have brought more popularity than the league has ever seen. The future of Major League Soccer is bright.
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Published by Joseph Lowery