Ridiculous team names, ludicrous kits and Americanized rules; that was Major League Soccer in a nutshell when it kicked off in April 1996. Just over 20 years ago, MLS debuted giving American soccer its first real professional league since the death of the original North American Soccer League in the mid-1980s. It was a re-birth, giving Americans that had never played abroad a chance to play top-level soccer. It was also an introduction to the game for a generation of fans that may have played in community leagues on Saturday mornings, but otherwise had little clue about what soccer actually was.
The league’s debut match, played after a whirlwind of preparation by the league, saw the San Jose Clash defeat DC United in front of a reported 31,000 fans in San Jose. High attendances were something MLS boasted in the early stages, giving the country hope that soccer could be a viable sport, and compete with Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the National Basketball Association. Although promising, those attendances were not sustainable, and MLS would see a major falloff in the subsequent years that would ebb and flow depending on the importance of league matches and US men’s national team World Cup performances.
That first wave of MLS saw 10 teams enter the league spread across the lower 48 states. Although Canada claims three MLS teams currently, the Great White North was left out of MLS in the early days. The Canadians had to fend for themselves for 11 years before being granted an expansion team in Toronto.
The ridiculous team names, colours and logos were down to the uniform manufacturers, as Adidas, Nike and Reebok went crazy with their designs. Tampa Bay Mutiny, DC United, New York/New Jersey Metrostars, Columbus Crew and New England Revolution made up the Eastern Conference. Meanwhile, Los Angeles Galaxy, Dallas Burn, Kansas City Wiz, San Jose Clash and Colorado Rapids assembled to make the Western Conference.
Those new to MLS since 2007 and beyond, and there are a lot of those fans these days, are forgiven for not recognizing all of the names in that original 10 team line-up. Four of the 10 teams changed their names not long after: Dallas Burn become FC Dallas, San Jose Clash took the old North American Soccer League Earthquakes’ moniker, Kansas City become the Wizards and Red Bull bought the MetroStars and changed the franchise’s name to a world famous energy drink. The original San Jose club eventually moved to Houston, although MLS later put an expansion team back in the northern California city.
The Mutiny didn’t last much longer as a team, and folded in the early 2000s when the league was on the verge of collapse. Florida, a state that has finally shown an ability to sustain professional soccer teams, saw both of its MLS franchises contracted in the same year. Miami Fusion was the other franchise swallowed by the league, although it didn’t come into MLS play until 1997 alongside Chicago Fire, making MLS a 12 team competition.
That first season was a success on the pitch, as it exposed numerous players to a country that new little to nothing about them. It also opened the eyes of other leagues onto what America could offer in terms of soccer. Those salad days of MLS boasted the USA’s stars of the day and many of those semi-familiar faces that graced the 1994 World Cup team. There was the red headed menace Alexi Lalas, the dreadlocked Cobi Jones, the controversial Eric Wynalda, a youthful Brian McBride and the long haired Marcelo Balboa that was capturing the country’s attention.
It was a sport a generation of Americans was extremely unfamiliar with, played by players with flamboyant hair and names that were unrecognizable. It was non-stop. There were no commercial breaks. It was low scoring, and it wasn’t going to convert everyone overnight.
The first MLS season went by well enough, but there were some Americanizations that bothered long-time fans of soccer and even some of the players. For one, the clock counted down from 90 minutes to zero, ending each half with a loud buzzer. Close offsides were said to be areas to be ignored by linesman. Draws would not be allowed, as teams would play a 35-yard, attacker v. goalkeeper shootout following the completion of tied matches. Former US national team player Eric Wynalda even cites the shootout as causing the injury that ruined his career. And amazingly, four substitutes would be allowed. Three outfield players and one goalkeeping substitute would be given for games, until MetroStars’ coach Bob Bradley made a mockery of it years later.
Today, league executives consider the US soccer audience more sophisticated, which is why those rules wouldn’t work in 2016. However, the US had just as sophisticated fans back then, it is just that the league in 2016, knows who its audience is. At least more than it did. It is also that there are more MLS fans than 20 years ago.
The first season was a massive learning curve for everyone involved, from the players and coaches to the fans and commentators. It is something players of the current generation will never see, at least, the hope is they won’t. MLS is far more professional than it ever was 20 year ago, and it is far more major league than in 1996.
On the field, despite losing the opening game of the season to an Eric Wynalda wonder goal in San Jose, DC United lifted the first MLS Cup. The league’s inaugural champions were crowned on a cold, day in Foxboro, Massachusetts where a nor’easter blew all weekend. In fact, a typical game would have been postponed, but the new league had to go on, despite the pitch being unplayable. DC United won thanks to Eddie Pope’s golden goal and over 34,000 fans witnessed the black and white defeat the Galaxy, putting an end to the first season of professional soccer’s return to the US.
What the modern generation of soccer fans in the US doesn’t know and fans at the time didn’t either, was the players were making very little money. The league’s salary cap was set at $1.2 million (in 2016 the salary cap is still just $3.6m) and no player was allowed to make more than $192,500 a season. Although some were allowed sponsors that helped them over that threshold. Not only were many of the players making very little, but the teams lacked proper facilities for soccer training. Games were played at gigantic NFL stadiums, and many training sessions were held in the same arenas. Some teams trained at local high schools and used big yellow school busses to shuttle its players from point A to point B. In truth, when it comes down to what MLS really was in 1996 compared to today, it was a semi-professional league in the way it was run. Though it was masked for much of the fans and media. Seeing was believing for fans, though it did have its detractors.
The league’s early success even spawned videogames in the early 2000s. Despite the critical reception of the games, based on Pro Evolution Soccer, it is hard to believe copies of the games flew off the shelves of Best Buy or Wal-Mart.
Watching MLS today is almost surreal. It is only 20 years old and every season it continues to evolve on and off the pitch. However, it isn’t only the league that is evolving, but the US and its soccer fans, players and community are also changing.
While MLS is at its strongest point to date with 20 teams and well-known soccer stars from around the world, the league shows signs it will only continue to grow. Four more teams are planned in the next four years. An additional four are in the works for cities bidding to have the next MLS franchise. There were some casualties along the way, however. The previously mention Tampa Bay, Miami and Chivas USA were all contracted. Although MLS will unveil Los Angeles FC in Chivas’ place soon. And MLS hopes David Beckham’s much waited for Miami franchise gets off the ground sooner rather than later.
Twenty years off MLS has now passed. There have been ups and downs, but the league is still here, for better or for worse. Despite the doomsayers and cynics, MLS has persevered, and has finally made professional soccer sustainable in the US and Canada.