The story of Major League Soccer is the story of the growth of association football in the United States in the years after the United States Soccer Federation was awarded the right to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup. In the years since the league’s inception the sport has grown to a level never before imagined, besting average live attendance numbers for both the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League and approaching the realization of a twenty-four-team league by the year 2020.
Once that dream has been achieved American soccer must make yet another giant leap. This Last Word on Sports series seeks to spell out how Major League Soccer must adapt after expansion, and profiles many of our writers’ varying opinions on where the league will spend most of its resources to continue its growth in recognition, talent, and renown. Last Word on Sports will also take a brief look back at the two major periods in the league’s history; the juxtaposition between these periods marks an important milestone in American soccer and helps set the stage for what Major League soccer will seek to become in MLS 3.0.
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Major League Soccer (MLS) was conceived as a key promise made to FIFA in exchange for the right to host the 1994 World Cup—the United States Soccer Federation would establish a Division 1 professional soccer league to elevate the sport in the eyes of the American public and set the stage for a complete revamp of American soccer. Even before the original seven clubs were announced in 1995, the renewed focus and determination of U.S. Soccer to grow and develop the sport was paying dividends as the United States Mens’ National Team (USMNT) qualified for the 1990 World Cup, their first appearance in forty years. Though they finished twenty-third of the twenty-four teams in the tournament, the stage was set for a big opportunity on home soil; the USMNT managed to make it out of their group in 1994, losing to eventual winners Brazil by a single goal. It was the United States’ coming out party as a soccer nation in what is still the FIFA World Cup with the highest average attendance of them all.
Still, despite the various milestones and successes in the run-up to the start of U.S. Soccer’s inaugural professional season, warning signs began to come to the forefront that MLS may not start without a hitch. When MLS was first announced the league was looking to start with twelve teams, but was forced to not only cut that number back to ten, but also postpone the inaugural season from 1995 to 1996. The players also filed an antitrust lawsuit in 1996 arguing that the salary cap was illegal and anti-competitive; the courts ultimately decided in Fraser v. Major League Soccer that the salary cap and various other cost control measures were allowed because as they were a single entity in ownership of the brand and clubs, also stating that the cap played a role in maintaining financial stability and parity in the league. Historically, this was a key problem the North American Soccer League (NASL) faced in the 1970s that led to its dissolution in the early 1980s.
The league launched in the Spring of 1996 to a crowd of nearly 32,000 in a match featuring the San Jose Flash and eventual champions D.C. United. The league managed impressive attendance numbers throughout what was seen as a hugely successful first season; the nascent league had a foothold with which to grow and develop in the years to come. The joy was short-lived, however, and the 1997 season saw attendance numbers plummet nearly 16 percent. This problem was exacerbated by playing in stadiums designed for American-style football, which accommodate much larger audiences than even today’s MLS can generally count on any given day. A failed strategy which tried to “Americanize” the sport to increase attendance and create more fans ended up alienating the supporters who already existed and further diminshed the league; between setting the clocks to count down for each half and making every match go to overtime and penalties if tied, American soccer die hards were not amused and abandoned the stands in droves, while the league was completely unsuccessful in creating more public acceptance of the sport. Slowly, the league moved away from this strategy but it was never completely shirked until the early 2000s, jeopardizing the league’s future.
The 1998 season also saw the introduction of two new clubs, Miami Fusion and that year’s MLS Cup champion Chicago Fire, bringing the league to the original stated goal of twelve teams. Still, attendance continued to lag and the league’s financial woes worsened as teams consistently operated at a loss and fans continued to flee the league. The crisis deepened when the France 1998 World Cup squad made up laregely of MLS players finished last in the tournament, calling into question the quality of the league and U.S. Soccer’s player development capabilities. Outwardly Major League Soccer talked about a bold plan of expansion for the future, but in August of 1999 the original MLS Commissioner Doug Logan was sacked and replaced by current commissioner Don Garber, a former National Football League Executive.
1999 proved to be a pivotal year for the league, one in which the seeds for a revival in the next decade were sown. It was after that season that many of the attempts to Americanize the sport were undone, specifically the use of penalties to decide all matches after overtime and the countdown clock, but a ten-minute golden goal period tie-breaker remained the league standard until 2004. Columbus moved into their own stadium in 1999, the first soccer-specific stadium in MLS; this development would become a winner for the league in later years, but merely magnified the clout and cash flow issues the league faced as other teams struggled to do the same for themselves. Garber was candid about slowing down the league’s ambitious expansion plans, consolidating the league by contracting the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion franchises; this was the darkest period for MLS, and many argued that the league may be forced to fold in the near future. MLS still promised further expansion with cities from Cleveland to Las Vegas preparing bids for future teams, but the league was left with only three owners after several sold their stakes in various clubs.
In the lead-up to the Korea/Japan 2002 World Cup, the future of the sport and league in the United States looked bleak and many wondered how to reverse the trend. It was a shock to even the closest followers of MLS when the USMNT reached the quarterfinals even gave Germany a run for their money in an unlucky 1-0 loss. The team was stacked with young American talent, most notably MLS youngsters DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan, another gamble by U.S. Soccer which would eventually be a critical component in its future success for both league and country. This focus on player development continued in the years leading up to the Germany 2006 World Cup, with the MLS Reserve Division beginning to help clubs develop young talent without rotating players into the starting lineup.
It was also in this period that soccer-specific stadiums began to take off beyond Columbus as Los Angeles, Dallas, and Chicago opened their gates. MLS also reversed course after their contraction and expanded into Salt Lake, while CD Chivas from Liga MX financed Chivas USA, a second team in Los Angeles. In 2006, the San Jose Earthquakes ownership and front office made the decision to move to Houston after plans for a stadium in San Jose reached an impasse. Major League Soccer was was growing again, and soccer-specific stadiums appeared to be leading the way as a majority of MLS clubs were playing in or building their own stadiums by the end of 2008. Eventually, San Jose’s Earthquakes were reborn as a new ownership group stepped forward in 2007 to bring the league back to a city reeling after losing an MLS original club.
The origins and development of Major League Soccer are a key storyline when understanding the development of American soccer. MLS 1.0 was an era which started with immense promise but nearly resulted in the failure of the league; had MLS not made changes in marketing strategy and rules, not to mention player development and soccer-specific stadiums. By looking at these origins, we can better understand how MLS 1.0 was turned around and how that turnaround helped feed the engine for MLS 2.0. Look for our MLS 2.0 segment on Monday morning by Staff Writer Roger Cleaves – @theCleavesiest.
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