By Brian Beard | 6th APR 2020
The Major League Soccer, MLS, began life, in 1993, as a condition of the United States being chosen to host the 1994 World Cup finals. The league began with 10 clubs in 1996 and the game made such strides in the wake of that establishment that the USA reached the World Cup Quarter-final just six years later.
However the MLS suffered severe financial problems for the first few seasons with many people, recalling similar problems establishing soccer in the USA with the previous attempt, the North American Soccer League, thinking it would be a case of here we go again.
The NASL struggled in the 1970s for many reasons; there was no relegation or promotion, there was no infrastructure to feed players into the NASL clubs and the gap, in playing standard, between college and university football and the NASL was too big.
Then there was the biggest problem of all, attracting television companies to broadcast games, many of which were staged in vast but empty stadia. However, the NASL did flourish for a few seasons by importing star players, such as Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto, World Cup winners all.
But because those stars were nearing the end of their careers when they did retire the hopes of the league went with them because there weren`t enough quality players to fill the gaps. One cross-over from the NASL that was critical to the establishment of the MLS, and one that cannot be ignored going forward, is the importance of the vast ethnic groups in the United States. Groups that are representative of established football nations, such as La Liga and Serie A, for example, two of the top three leagues in the world
After the early years of struggling, two of the 12 original member clubs, Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny, folded in 2002. The MLS continued with just ten clubs until 2005 when Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA, out of Los Angeles, entered the league.
Chivas lasted until 2014 but 2007 saw a major move that improved the MLS when, for the first time, the league expanded into Canada, with the addition of Toronto FC. The newcomers struggled for a long time and didn`t make the play-offs, for the first time, until 2015.
The MLS seemed to gather some momentum towards the end of the first decade of the 21st century. San Jose Earthquakes entered the league in 2008, taking the club total to 14 and in 2009 one of the biggest events in the short history of the MLS occurred when Seattle Sounders, previously giants in the NASL, became the 15th club. Things were looking up and a gamble could be had with a bet with Draftkings.
The entry of Seattle was perhaps the most significant expansion in the modern era. Great attendances made them the top team as far as gates were concerned, every year. On the field the team proved they were no slouches either, reaching the play-offs every year and winning their first MLS title just seven years after joining the league, 2016.
The next milestone for the MLS came in 2011 when Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps, another giant of the NASL, took membership to 18. And with Seattle Sounders already established, one of the most intense rivalries in the MLS started between the three Pacific North West clubs, resulting in plenty of silverware.
Montreal Impact became the third Canadian MLS club, in 2012, and made a terrific impact, reaching the play-offs in three of their first five seasons. New York City entered the league in 2015 and, like their Cosmos, predecessors made some marquee signings, including Kaka and Del Piero.
In the last three years the total membership of the MLS has risen to 26, with 13 clubs in each of the two divisions, the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference. Atlanta United joined the league in 2017, and LA FC and FC Cincinnati in 2018, before the publicity bandwagon that is David Beckham`s Inter Miami `rolled into town`. Miami and Nashville were due to enter the MLS in 2020, with Charlotte and Austin entrants in 2021 and the following year Sacramento and St Louis will enter the league.
Lessons were learnt from previous years and changes implemented have proved successful. The average MLS attendance exceeds the levels of the NHL and the NBA. The Designated Player Rule allows the signing of star players and with national television contracts in place the league is now profitable.
Also significant is that soccer-specific stadiums now proliferate in the MLS so no more playing in empty baseball and NFL stadiums and unique betting codes . Better a capacity 25,000 crowd than the same number being lost in a 100,000-seater venue. Perhaps the single biggest factor in the success of the MLS centres on ownership.
The MLS is a single entity whereby each team is owned by the league and is individually operated by the league`s investors. Those investor-operators control their teams as owners do in other leagues. The league also has fixed membership, i.e. no promotion and relegation and that is perhaps the MLS`s `Achilles Heel`.
The MLS will continue to grow, to at least its proposed 2021/22 ceiling of 30 clubs. But beyond that, who knows. Although money talks it is the protection of, and encouragement of future, investment because promotion and relegation rails against an established American mind-set, that presents the MLS with its biggest challenge.
Unless the MLS can encourage, and re-educate, the money-men that every other league in the world has the edge over their product, an edge that introduces the competitive element that is integral to sport, then the MLS will have gone as far as it can.
By Brian Beard, Associate Historian to the Football Association.