By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Feb 23, 2020) US Soccer Players – MLS officially kicks off its 25th season this coming weekend. For a league that had such humble beginnings back in 1996, it has grown immensely over the last two decades. This growth seemed steady until the recent expansion era. That there's so much demand for clubs speaks to what MLS got right over the last couple of decades. It wasn't always a sure thing that this league would make it over the long term.
Born as a result of FIFA awarding the 1994 World Cup to the United States, Major League Soccer played its first season in 1996. It wasn't a straight line from successful World Cup to successful domestic league. By early 2002, the league hit a roadblock when MLS reported to have lost an estimated $250 million over its first five years of existence. The then-12 team league decided to scale back and contract its two Florida-based franchises. As a result, the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion folded. The league was in a bad place. A series of decisions over the next decade helped by the money and support of investors like Philip Anschutz and Lamar Hunt would help the league eventually get MLS on better financial footing.
The league entered a growth phase in the mid-2000s, adding clubs but at a slow pace under the leadership of commissioner Don Garber. Eventually, that rate of expansion would increase and more than double the size of the league. Ahead of opening weekend, here's a look at the 5 things over the last 25 years that have helped the league grow. Without them, MLS would not be where it is today.
Soccer-specific stadiums (1999)
The notion of building a venue specifically for soccer was an innovation that came into existence in the late 1990s. Teams had primarily been housed in NFL stadiums, often massive venues that were very good at making the average MLS crowd look small. The most glaring example of this was the New York/New Jersey MetroStars who played in the cavernous Giants Stadium in those early years.
It was in 1999 that the Columbus Crew, under the leadership of the Hunt family, build the country's first soccer-specific venue. Now known as Mapfre Stadium, the venue comfortable seated 20,000. That triggered a trend across the league that continues to this day. Those cozy venues helped grow attendance as well as creating an atmosphere that benefited the fan culture immensely in this country.
The stadium in Columbus became regularly used for US National Team matches against Mexico. The US posted four 2-0 wins against Mexico in Columbus, further inflaming a regional rivalry that has become one of the best in the world over the last two decades. The venue has also hosted two MLS Cup Finals in 2001 and 2005.
All-Star Game format (2003)
Midseason showcases in North American sports are often dull affairs. The MLS All-Star Game, under the typical format featuring intra-conference battles, had run its course. Soccer, after all, is a global game. Why not make the All-Star Game international?
Starting in 2003, that's exactly what happened when the MLS All-Stars took on Mexican club Chivas at The Home Depot Center in Carson, California. Since then, the league's best players have taken on an international club with the exception of 2004 when the league briefly returned to the East vs West format.
Since 2005, MLS has played a European club, a perfect fit since teams across the Atlantic are available and often training in the United States for preseason. That 2005 MLS All-Star Game saw the league defeat English side Fulham 4-1. This summer's game will break the European streak when a group of MLS All-Stars play the Liga MX All-Stars on July 29 at Banc of California Stadium, another way of re-envisioning the game. MLS deserves credit for leading here, with the other North American major leagues revamping their own all-star games over the last few years. Some of those changes makes what MLS did look traditional by comparison.
Designated Players (2007)
The Designated Player Rule came into existence ahead of the 2007 season, radically changing rosters across the league. This new rule allowed MLS teams to compete for and sign star players. The first DP signing was David Beckham. As a result, the rule quickly became known as the "Beckham Rule" after the Los Angeles Galaxy signed the England star to a $250 million contract over five years. The direct guaranteed compensation from MLS and the Galaxy was $6.5 million per season, the rest coming from sponsors, endorsements, and jersey sales.
The strict single-entity structure of MLS limited what teams could spend, a bid to avoid the collapse that took out the original North American Soccer League in the 1980s. The DP Rule was a major success and continues to be one. There are currently 64 DPs in the league, with each season now holding the potential for at least one marquee signing somewhere in MLS.
Another milestone that took place in 2007 was Toronto FC's expansion season. The league sent two clear messages. It was going to be Canada's topflight as well as the USA's and it was about to embark on a new era of sustained growth.
In 2007, MLS had 13 teams. A decade later, there were 22. This season, there will be 26. The league will reach 30 teams in 2021 with the additions of Austin and Charlotte. That will be followed by St. Louis and Sacramento in 2022. It is such medium-sized urban markets spread out across the Midwest and South that has seen the most growth for the league. MLS is clearly on an upswing. The game continues to gain mainstream popularity with American audiences.
New York City FC, for example, paid a then-record $100 million expansion fee for the right to join MLS in time for the 2015 season. How sought after are expansion teams? FC Cincinnati and a new Nashville team each reportedly paid $150 million to join MLS in 2019 and 2020. Charlotte's investor/operator doubled that.
Homegrown Players (2014)
Playing in soccer-specific venues, expanding to new cities, and signing international stars were the three major moves that has helped MLS grow. Developing and nurturing young players, both in the United States and Canada, and helping them play in MLS and potentially Europe became a centerpiece of what the league was doing by the middle of the last decade.
The Homegrown Player Rule allows MLS teams to sign local players from their own development academies to their first-team rosters. Before such a rule, players were assigned to teams through an allocation processes like the MLS SuperDraft.
Seattle Sounders defender DeAndre Yedlin became the first player signed under the new rule. The signing paid off quickly since Yedlin went on to play for the US at the 2014 World Cup that summer and signed by Tottenham a year later. Teams continue to sign such talent. Some notables have included Andy Najar, Juan Agudelo, Gyasi Zardes, and Jordan Morris.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2018. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
More from Clemente Lisi:
- Familiar expectations for MLS in the Champions League
- Ben Olsen in DC
- The Chicago and Atlanta MLS expansion models
- Martino's Mexico in 2020
Logo courtesy of MLS