By The Numbers… North American Soccer League vs Major League Soccer

The North American Soccer League and Major League Soccer.

By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Feb 11, 2013) US Soccer Players – Before the launch of Major League Soccer in 1996, the North American Soccer League was the standard when it came to a pro league in this country. For all the good the NASL represented and nostalgia it evoked, it also stood for many of the things that were wrong with the game in this country in the 1970s and ‘80s.

The NASL eventually dissolved in 1985. The league lasted a tumultuous 17 seasons before coming to an end. Next month, MLS will enter its 18th season and officially outlasting the NASL. Why did MLS live longer? For starters, MLS learned a lot from its predecessor. MLS made sure it did not expand too quickly and that teams did not spend outrageous sums of money on players.

For a better understanding of MLS and the NASL, here is a season-by-season comparison – placed on a timeline with attendance figures and other notable statistics – of both leagues. What you will see is one league (MLS) that survived some tough times, but ultimately grew. The other (NASL) also had some lean years, only to have some great ones before a quick downturn.

Season 1

NASL (1968) – Two leagues, the USA and NPSL, merge and form the NASL. A total of 17 teams play the first season. Attendance around the league was a dismal 3,400 – short of the 20,000 required to break even. CBS showed games. 

MLS (1996) – The league launches as part of the agreement to host the 1994 World Cup, missing their scheduled start date by a year. The league has 10 teams under a single-entity structure, meaning the league’s investors own and control the clubs. Average attendance around the league is 17,406. ABC/ESPN in English and Univision/Galavision/Telefutura in Spanish broadcast the games.

Season 2

NASL (1969) –  Ten franchises fold. CBS cancels TV contract. Phil Woosnam named NASL commissioner.

MLS (1997) – The league is again comprised of 10 teams. Average attendance declines sharply to 14,619.

Season 3

NASL (1970) – The league grows to eight teams with inclusion of the Rochester Lancers and Washington Darts.

MLS (1998) – The league grows to 12 teams. The expansion Chicago Fire wins MLS Cup.

Season 4

NASL (1971) – The New York Cosmos join the league.

MLS (1999) – No new teams join the league. The NY/NJ MetroStars have yet to win MLS Cup after three years in existence. Columbus Crew Stadium, the league’s first soccer-specific stadium, opens.  Don Garber becomes MLS commissioner.

Season 5

NASL (1972) – Eight teams in the league with the Cosmos beating St Louis for the title at Yankee Stadium.  14-game regular season, the shortest in NASL history.

MLS (2000) – Kansas City wins the Supporters’ Shield for best regular season record and the title.  Average attendance is 13,756.

Season 6

NASL (1973) – The expansion Philadelphia Atoms win Soccer Bowl.  Average attendance is over 5k for the first time.

MLS (2001) – The San Jose Earthquakes are MLS Cup champions.

Season 7

NASL (1974) – The league grows to 15 teams. The expansion Los Angeles Aztecs win Soccer Bowl.

MLS (2002) – The Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny cease operations. The number of teams drops back to 10.

Season 8

NASL (1975) – Cosmos sign Pele to a three-year, $4.7 million deal. Attendance goes up just 2% league-wide to 7,930 per game. Cosmos fail to make the playoffs.

MLS (2003) – The Home Depot Center opens. The 27,000-seat, $150 million stadium would become one of the country’s best soccer facilities.

Season 9

NASL (1976) –  Beginning of rise in league’s popularity and average attendance is over 10k for the first time in history.  Broadcasts move to syndication.

MLS (2004) –  The League gains new prominence by signing 14-year-old Freddy Adu who joins DC United through the draft.  DC wins the championship. 

Season 10

NASL (1977) –  18 teams in the league with the Cosmos winning the Soccer Bowl in Pele’s final competitive game.

MLS (2005) –  Another try at expansion with Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake joining the league.  The LA Galaxy win the championship.

Season 11

NASL (1978) – Six new teams join the league, increasing its size to 24.  Average attendance is just over 13k and the league has a new network TV deal with ABC.

MLS (2006) –  Red Bull buys into the league renaming the MetroStars as the New York Red Bulls.  For the first time, a team relocates with the defending Supporters’ Shield winners San Jose becoming the Houston Dynamo and going onto win the MLS Cup.  Average attendance is 15,504. 

Season 12

NASL (1979) – The league reaches an all-time high in popularity and continues to sign foreign stars. The Los Angeles Aztecs sign Dutch star Johan Cruyff to a $700,000 a year deal for two seasons. He goes on to win the league MVP award.

MLS (2007) – David Beckham signs a five-year contract with the Los Angeles Galaxy worth $32.5 million ($150 million if you include endorsements and other revenue sources). The league introduces the “Beckham Rule,” which allows each team in the league to sign a Designated Player whose salary won’t be used against its salary cap. Aside from Beckham, five other DPs join the league.

Season 13

NASL (1980) – ABC cuts back television coverage from a game each week to just the Soccer Bowl. Average attendance is 14,440, the record for the NASL.

MLS (2008) – Fox Soccer Channel and ESPN are the broadcast partners.  Last season MLS Cup is on ESPN’s parent national network ABC.  League-wide attendance is 16,460.

Season 14

NASL (1981) – League-wide attendance hits 14,674. The Cosmos saw attendance fall to 37,717. Last nationally televised game is the Soccer Bowl on ABC.

MLS (2009) – League-wide attendance hits 16,037. The Red Bulls (formerly the MetroStars) saw attendance fall to 12,744, but the expansion Seattle Sounders set new attendance records. MLS Cup moves to cable on ESPN.

Season 15

NASL (1982) – The number of teams drop to 14. The Dallas Tornado, an original NASL franchise, folds. USA Network shows some games on cable. 

MLS (2010) – The league is at 16 teams with the addition of the Philadelphia Union.

Season 16

NASL (1983) – 14 teams in the league after seven go out of business before the start of the season. The Cosmos winning their 5th title. Howard Samuels replaces Woosnam as commissioner.

MLS (2011) – Portland and Vancouver join the league and the Kansas City Wizards open their new stadium as Sporting Kansas City. Average attendance is 17,872.

Season 17

NASL (1984) – League-wide attendance drops to 10,759. League drops to nine teams. Only four teams commit to the 1985 season.

MLS (2012) – League-wide attendance grows to 18,807. League grows to 19 teams with the addition of Montreal Impact. Ratings for the MLS Cup fall as LA beats Houston for the second consecutive season.

Season 18

NASL (1985) – Cosmos drop out. With only two teams committed to playing (Toronto and Minnesota), the NASL folds on March 28th before an 18th season can be played.

MLS (2013) – MLS starts its 18th season. The season begins on March 2nd.

Clemente Lisi is a New York-based writer. Contact him at: Follow him on Twitter at:

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