Tonight the annual Major League Soccer (MLS) All-Star Game was played as the stars of the MLS faced one of the most well known clubs in the English Premier League, Arsenal. The Gunners leave San Jose with a 2-1 victory, but it was an entertaining game showcasing some of the best MLS talent.
Here we take a further look at the history and current state of North America’s best league.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
MLS was officially created in 1995 and began play in 1996 with 10 clubs. But the foundation for the league actually began many years earlier. In 1998 the governing body of soccer in the country, United States Soccer Federation, pledged to FIFA to create a Division 1 professional soccer league as a condition for being awarded the 1994 World Cup.
A number of Division 1 leagues had been formed in the United States with the first being the American Football Association, which was tied to The Football Association, of English fame. The league was formed clear back in 1884. The association never achieved its desired purpose to be the governing body of soccer in the US as it refused to spread to teams outside the Northeast. In 1968 the North American Soccer League (NASL) was formed by combining the United States Soccer Association and National Professional Soccer League (which included the Baltimore Bays), both of which had formed the preceeding year. They realized that a combined effort had a much better chance of success and the NASL. The NASL played from 1968 to 1984 with attendance peaking during the 1977-1983 seasons when the league averaged 13,000 fans per match.
The NASL ultimately fell to its demise in March of 1985 when the league voted to suspend operations. The league had expanded to 24 teams over the years, rosters had been expanded to 28 players, and the average team was spending 70% of its budget on player salaries (compared to NFL teams spending about 40%). Additionally, in the early 1980’s unemployment was over 10%, the highest level since WWII. The league had been losing 10s of millions a year the last several years and could no longer sustain the league. But the foundation for professional soccer in the United States had been laid out, including some valuable lessons learned.
In March of 1994, two full years before MLS was slated to start play, a critical agreement was reached between the MLS and ESPN and ABC. A television contract to guarantee the televising of 35 games on ESPN/ESPN2 and the MLS Cup on ABC for the first three years of league play, 1996-1998.
One of the major improvements to the management approach of MLS compared to NASL was to build a solid fan base, expand the television audience, and to grow in a very controlled manner. Initially many of the original MLS clubs played in stadiums owned or leased by NFL teams, mostly with capacities over 60,000. (They realized that the future lie in the development of soccer only stadiums.)This led to some financial struggles in the early years and MLS quickly realized that their growth really needed to take a different approach; the development of soccer only stadiums. Additionally, the first few seasons MLS attempted some rule changes to “Amercianize” the sport. The two most glaring being the shootout as means to resolve a tie match and a countdown clock. What they soon discovered is that it actually worked in reverse. They turned off the traditional soccer fans, and there were not enough new fans to the sport to sustain the league. Much like its NASL predecessor, MLS found itself in serious financial difficulties and in 2002 contracted back to 10 teams, with six being owned by one owner!
But then a miracle occurred. The 2002 World Cup, in which, inexplicably, the US Mens National Team made it to the quarterfinals. That gave soccer, at all levels, a tremendous boost, and the MLS Cup held a mere four months after the World Cup had a record attendance of over 60,000.
From 2003 to 2008 six additional soccer only stadiums were completed with the majority of the teams playing in those kinds of stadiums. Modest and sustainable growth occurred since 2005 as the league expands to 22 teams in 2017 (Minnesota and Atlanta) and should be at 24 teams by 2020 (Los Angeles FC and Miami).
The approach being taken is certainly working. The average attendance across the MLS has risen from 15,108/match in 2005 to 21,574/match last year.
Clearly the management approach being taken has gotten the MLS on solid ground and on a path to continued growth. One of the sated objectives of the MLS is to be one of the premier leagues in the world. A pretty lofty goal for sure. Achievable perhaps but certainly the league has a ways to go. The level of play has definitely improved especially since the introduction of the Designated Player Rule in 2007 which enabled the clubs to bring in top level international talent even with the relatively low (compared to most leagues) salary caps. Bringing in David Beckham under this rule was a huge boost to MLS. One of the most recognizable faces on the planet was a boost in attendance, MLS clothing, and overall publicity for the league. And this rule has led to many foreign stars playing the game on US fields. In fact look no further than the roster of tonight’s MLS All-Stars. Giovani dos Santos (Mexico), Kaka (Brazil), Andrea Pirlo (Italy), Drogba Didier (Ivory Coast), Sebastian Giovinco (Italy), and David Villa (Spain). Oh and not to mention that there are six guys playing tonight that have caps with the US Men’s National Team. That’s a pretty impressive and a clear indicator that the level of play in the MLS is ramping up.
But I think there are two solid reasons why expectations of the future rise of the league should be tempered.
First, is simply financial. The league has done an outstanding job the last 10 years in building a sustainable future. One of continued growth and expansion. And the financial situation of the league appears to be sound. But the basis for the basis for the growth over the last 10 years has not changed. Slow and steady with a good salary cap structure. And that keeps the level of money available for star players somewhat low. As television and attendance revenues increase so can the salary levels. And that will attract more and more foreign stars. But it needs to be done in a controlled manner.
Second, and this one is a tough nut to crack. While foreign stars do enhance interest there is no doubt that fans like to see homegrown players. This is true in any sport. Sure winning is first but there is nothing like a winning team featuring homegrown talent. But we also like to see the MNT win and excel. And currently, that typically means that the young stars need to go to Europe and play in the better leagues, and better still the Champions League or Europa League. Only by facing the top talent will players learn what it takes to play at that level. So the current coaching philosophy of the MNT coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, is to “encourage” our players to push themselves to overseas leagues. While he doesn’t overtly chastise the MLS there is no doubt he feels that playing in the MLS does not develop players to the level they need to be at.
So its a bit of a conundrum. It helps to build the MLS to have star US players playing at home. But the downside is that it tends to inhibit the improvement of the MNT. Hopefully, down the road, the MLS will be a top quality league to where this is no longer an issue.
In the meantime, enjoy the ride. The MLS is here to stay. Soccer is here to stay. And the sport is growing in this country by leaps and bounds.
Steve is an avid fan of all things soccer and the O’s. Originally from the west, he grew up in the Baltimore area. He returned to the west for college where he earned a BS degree in Chemical Engineering from Montana State University and spent 36 years working at the Idaho National Laboratory prior to retiring in 2013. It was during his school years in Baltimore where he learned to play soccer and that developed into a life long passion. He played competitively for over 40 years and was a four year starting goalkeeper at MSU. He also coached and refereed in the Idaho premier soccer and High School programs for many years.