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The rise and rise of MLS

Oliver McManus looks back at MLS from its inception to its present state, and how the league has grown over time.

For many a year, the dream of making football popular and bringing it to the forefront of public attention in America was scoffed, revered almost, a bit like Leonardo DiCaprio’s dream of winning an Oscar. Now, in its 20th season, it looks as though the league has finally made its mark on America.

MLS 2016 New

Founded in 1993, the League’s inaugural season was initially set for 1995 but, due to various difficulties, was pushed back until the following year.

A mere 10 teams participated and, in a bit of a bizarre move, they were split into 2 conferences of 5, an Eastern and Western, with the top 4 from each advancing to a playoff round.

On the 6th April 1996, 31,000 fans packed into the Spartan Stadium, San Jose to watch the San Jose Clash defeat D.C. United. It’s fair to say that there was a sense of excitement surrounding MLS in its first season, a veritable sense of ‘what might be’

Original rules restricted teams to just 2 foreign players but that didn’t stop them from luring top ‘marquee’ players that starred in the 1994 World Cup to play in the MLS, Mexican goalkeeper Jorge Campos turned out for L.A. Galaxy and Colombian legend Carlos Valderrama played for the Tampa Bay Mutiny.

The first season was a success beyond most people’s imagination with an average crowd of just over 17,000 and the first MLS Cup Final drawing 34,643 fans as D.C. United beat L.A. Galaxy by 3 goals to 2.

United went on to win the Cup on 3 of the first 4 seasons, and, it is this initial domination that led to the league, firstly, getting ahead of itself and, then, tumbling back to earth.

Owners saw MLS as a potential money making opportunity and in 1998, the league added two new expansion teams – Miami Fusion and Chicago Fire. After its first season, however, the league started to lose millions of dollars and teams started to suffer as a result.

Attendances started to decline rapidly, a fact made even more evident with many teams playing in large American football stadiums.

It’s not for a lack of love of football in America, more the League alienating its audience. Attempts at ‘Americanizing’ the sport didn’t go down well; the use of penalty shootouts to decided drawn matches and a countdown clock were both eliminated for the 2000 season.

In these turbulent opening 4 years, Major League Soccer is estimated to have lost around $200 million and, they recognized, something needed to change. This started with, former NFL executive, Don Garber becoming MLS Commissioner and the return to a 10-team league with Tampa Bay and Miami not making the cut.

It must be mentioned that through their struggles, some, at the time, ground-breaking precedents were made – in 1999, Columbus Crew built MLS’ first football-specific stadium and, several other clubs followed suit in the following years.

The key to the resurgence of football in America was the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) and, more specifically, their performance in the 2002 where, against all expectations, they reached the quarter final stage of the Japan/South Korea World Cup.

The MLS Cup in 2002 was watched by 61,316 spectators in the Gillette Stadium, a record for an MLS Cup final match. The adaptation of International Football rules in 2005 was a sign of the League reaching a parity and normality with other league’s worldwide.

The League made a transition away from modelling itself on marquee foreign players and placed the emphasis on marketing with the talents of their ‘home-grown’ American players.

When Tim Howard made the leap to Manchester United in 2003, some saw it as a sign of the top players being poached from the league, other saw it as showing the growth of the quality of players and the league in general.

Between 2005 and 2007, a further 4 teams were introduced into the competition for the first time since the failed expansion of 1998; Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake were accepted in 2005; San Jose relocated to Houston and became Houston Dynamo in 2006; whilst Toronto FC became the 13th team of the league in 2007.

It was also in 2007 that the new ‘Designated Player Rule’ came into effect, helping the league to attract bigger, more recognizable international stars.

The league was balanced in a state of mediocrity around this time, it was attracting football fans and finances were stable, but they weren’t able to attract new fans, fans that would elevate MLS to a new level. But then, something incredible happened. David Beckham happened.

In 2007, Los Angeles Galaxy pulled off the biggest coup in, potentially, football history. They had signed David Beckham from Real Madrid, quite possibly the biggest footballer in the world had moved from the richest club in the world to ply his trade in America.

Fans flocked to catch a glimpse of this international legend and the league was, without a shadow of a doubt, resurged. Resurged is an understatement, Major League Soccer was, for the first time in its lifetime, catapulted into the limelight.

David Beckham stayed with Galaxy until 2012 and he saw the landscape of the league change dramatically; 6 more teams were added, San Jose Earthquakes, Seattle Sounders, Philadelphia Union, Vancouver Whitecaps, Portland Timbers and Montreal Impact; total attendances doubled from just over 3,000,000 in 2007 to over 6,000,000 in 2012 and the league was rocking.

It’s not just David Beckham that had an impact on the league, the New York Red Bulls signed up the likes of Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry but there was still this feeling from the rest of the world, specifically in Europe, that MLS was something of a retirement league.

Something had to be done to shake this image and a rather youthful rebrand of the league took place in 2015 with a brand new logo representing the league and a broadcasting deal worth 5 times their previous one. Major League Soccer was, finally, reaching the masses.

On the financial side of things, Don Garber has managed to take the league from the depths of financial ruin and turn into the 3rd most profitable football league outside of Europe. The value of clubs has increased almost five-fold since 2008 from an average of $37 million to a gargantuan $157 milllion as of 2015.

The future looks bright for football in America, the addition of New York City and Orlando SC in 2015 showed that the league is still looking to expand its reach and, with expansion franchises from Atlanta, Los Angeles, Minnesota and Miami scheduled for before 2020, MLS is ever evolving.

It’s been a tough, sometimes painful journey through these last 23 years but, America, in the year that your sweetheart Leonardo DiCaprio achieved his dream of winning an Oscar, it appears as though MLS has achieved its dream of etching itself onto the nations DNA.

There’s no doubting Major League Soccer still has a long way to go, in terms of growth and development, for it to be on a par with the top 6 European league and it will take time for them to get there.

But, for now, they are content in defying expectations, forging their own path in this dog-eat-dog world and that is something which should echo across societies around the globe.

MLS remains true to its roots, remembering where it came from and what it’s been through, as long as we all remain true to ourselves and acknowledge that what makes us unique is what makes us special then, our dreams will always be insight;

You don’t have to be the best to succeed, you just need to be you.

Written by Oliver McManus

Oliver McManus


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