By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 1, 2020) US Soccer Players - Year 25 of Major League Soccer isn't exactly going to plan. The outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic necessitated a shutdown of sports almost everywhere, forcing MLS to put a celebration of a quarter-century of top-flight professional soccer on hold. When the games return, the league can properly celebrate reaching the milestone season. A litany of professional soccer leagues have lived and died over the last century. Making it this far is in itself an accomplishment.
The visible achievements of MLS make Year 25 a hallmark occasion beyond the number. The recent rash of expansion pushed the league to 26 teams for 2020 even as four more clubs prepare to join MLS in the next two years. MLS can boast of soccer-specific venues across the country and of a club that ranks among the world's top teams in attendance. The league's average attendance beat 20,000 for five consecutive years leading into 2020. Considering how close MLS came to shutting down for financial reasons in its early years, that alone is a reason to throw a party.
Academy products occupy more roster spots than ever before and several of those developed by MLS is making waves for both club and country. While MLS has a long way to go to catch up to the leading soccer-playing nations of the world, tangible proof that investment in development is paying off bodes well for the league's next milestone season.
Previous milestone campaigns and what the league could celebrate during them illustrated just how far MLS has come. Not every season marked by a multiple of five was so rosy.
The 2000 season was the league's fifth. It came much too early for anyone to celebrate longevity. MLS didn't create a commemorative logo or hold pre-season events to mark the occasion. Year 5 was just another year for a league still losing money by the millions to rely on the largesse of a few committed investor/operators to keep it afloat.
The Kansas City Wizards lifted MLS Cup in 2000 with goalkeeper Tony Meola winning MVP honors. Meola was spectacular that season, keeping 16 clean sheets during the regular season and earning MLS Cup MVP to go with his other awards.
Off the field, 2000 wasn't a banner year for the league. That season saw MLS average just 13,756 fans per game across 12 clubs, the lowest mark in League history. Three different teams, including Meola's Wizards and both of the league's Florida-based teams, drew fewer than 10,000 fans a game. Only one team played in a soccer-specific venue, with Crew Stadium a year old. While the construction of that building represented a milestone for MLS, the rest of the league still languished in oversized American football stadiums or barebones facilities that did the product no favors.
Five years later, MLS was still reeling from nearly shutting down following the 2001 season, when it contracted the two Florida franchises. The league made its way back to 12 teams that year by adding two new expansion clubs, the first additions since the Chicago Fire and Miami Fusion joined in 1998. Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA both represented experiments for MLS and illustrate the difference in demand for new teams when compared to the modern spate of growth.
Unlike five years earlier, MLS did put together a program to celebrate its 10-year milestone. The league unveiled a commemorative logo (a shield with the league's "foot and ball" logo and the number 10 overlaid on it) and issued special 10th-anniversary merchandise. Fans voted in polls to select the best of the league's opening decade.
League attendance rebounded to rise north of 15,000 in 2004, the season leading into the 10th-anniversary campaign. Although MLS experienced a dip in the number for 2005, the general upward trend was just beginning. Though far from stable, MLS possessed plenty of reason to celebrate 10 years of staying power. The Galaxy won its second MLS Cup title in 2005, featuring a front line of Landon Donovan and Herculez Gomez.
Fifteen years doesn't have the same sort of resonance as a decade does. The 2010 season marked 15 years for MLS, but the league did little to note the occasion. 2010 is worthy of review largely because it's the first hallmark year on the list that falls under the MLS 2.0 heading.
With the introduction of the Designated Player rule in 2007, MLS moved quickly to scoop up higher-priced talent. League rules changed dramatically for 2010 when teams gained the ability to sign up to three DPs with the third requiring a luxury tax payment. Those teams included new additions since 2005. San Jose relocated as the Houston Dynamo in 06, with a second Earthquakes team added to the league for 2008. Toronto joined in 2007, Seattle in 2009, and the Philadelphia Union in 2010.
Fifteen years into its history, MLS hit an inflection point. It's arbitrary to suggest that 2010 represented the beginning of the league's modern shift, but that year is as strong a contender as any. From the league's 15th season to its 25th, MLS added 10 more teams and increased spending dramatically. Two soccer-specific stadiums opened during the 2010 season, and eight more came online during the following decade.
Of course, MLS hit another milestone season between 2010 and now. The 2015 season was the league's 20th year, an important landmark in establishing MLS as a permanent part of the American sports landscape. Whatever doubts sports fans across the country had about MLS through its first two decades struggled to stand up in the face of 20 years of continuity.
Though MLS had already seen the debut of a number of teenage players who weren't yet born when the league launched, the league's 20th birthday served as a marker for a younger generation. New players and new fans never knew a world before MLS. Their entire soccer experience in the United States included the league, a powerful reality for the once-shaky competition.
The league did all the requisite retrospectives at 20, utilizing the number to put together "Top 20s" on nearly everything from Major League Soccer's first 20 years. MLS also used the occasion not to issue a commemorative logo highlighting the 20th season, but to revamp its imaging altogether. The league dumped the "foot and ball" logo of the league's first 20 years for a shield design that included an odd "kickstand."
None of those previous milestones mean more than the 25th season. Every year that passes further entrenches the league both on the domestic and world stages. MLS must make ambitious choices if it wants to reach lofty goals set over the course of the first quarter-century of its existence, but its evolution is laudable and very much worth celebrating. For now, those celebrations are just on hold.
More From Jason Davis:
- What Sporting KC can teach the Revs about a rebrand
- The four perfect MLS teams
- Clint Dempsey and that goal
- Stadium construction continues in MLS
Logo courtesy of MLS