By Ben Castaneda
Professional soccer in the United States has always had a lukewarm level of popularity. Following the formation of the North American Soccer League in 1968, soccer would go on to quickly gain popularity throughout the late 1970s. But just as quickly as it became popular, the league fell into the abyss, and would disband by 1984. Four years later, in 1988, FIFA would make an announcement that would change the soccer culture in the United States forever.
The U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) successfully won the bid to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup, making it the first, and only, country to host the World Cup without a professional soccer league. FIFA wanted to make sure soccer was not only brought to North America, but that soccer would stay with the Americans. So in order to be named the host, the USSF agreed to bring back a professional soccer league to the United States. This was the birth of Major League Soccer.Embed from Getty Images
Major League Soccer, or MLS, did not begin play until the spring of 1996, when soccer was still very popular following the successful 1994 World Cup. It began with a modest 10 teams, but with much fanfare. However, the popularity of the league would quickly fizzle out, leaving many teams to play in near-empty football stadiums.
Financial problems plagued the league for the first five years, as they lost nearly $250 million, according to a 2008 BusinessWeek article. This would lead the MLS to make cuts in order to reduce operating costs. Owners agreed to freeze team budgets and not sign any new expensive players. The financial health of the league was in such a terrible condition, that they had to contract the league prior to the 2002 season. MLS was at 12 teams after a 1998 expansion into Miami and Chicago. Unable to financially support those 12 teams, the MLS decided to eliminate the two worst teams, the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion.
The U.S. Men’s National Team’s miserable performance in the 1998 World Cup contributed to the continued decline in popularity of the MLS. The team was largely composed of MLS players, which led many people to associate the league with the lack of success in the World Cup.
For much of the late 2000s, there was an upward growth of youth soccer in the United States, according to a New York Times article in mid-2010. In 2007, FIFA calculated that there were 3.9 million American youths playing soccer, making the U.S. the number one country for youth soccer participation. While the youth game grew, the lower levels of professional soccer blossomed, creating a healthy competitive culture amongst the teams. The USL-PRO league has seen the most expansion in recent years, starting with the Orlando City Soccer Club in 2011. The league only had 11 teams then, but in the 2015 season, USL-PRO will have 24 teams across the nation and in Canada.Embed from Getty Images
In 2007, MLS began to see increases both financially and in popularity. The league was beginning to stabilize. The success was seen in the newest franchise, Toronto FC, who had sellout crowds and thousands more waiting to get tickets. Besides the new team, MLS brought in a great talent with David Beckham, when he signed with the LA Galaxy. This brought in a wave of international talent that was not seen since the first few years of the league.
Expansion continued throughout the late 2000s when the Seattle Sounders joined in 2009, only to be followed by the addition of the Philadelphia Union in 2010. Thierry Henry would also headline the 2010 season when he signed with the New York Red Bulls. Expansion would continue into the current decade, with teams forming in Vancouver, Portland, Montreal, New York City, and Orlando.Embed from Getty Images
2015 will mark the 20th season for Major League Soccer and its only fitting that there is now 20 teams. This season marks the return of MLS to the Sunshine State and this season will see more of an influx of international talent than previous seasons. Players like Kaká, David Villa, and Steven Gerrard have joined because MLS is no longer a joke and many believe that it will be a premiere league in the near future.
Luckily, the future is bright for this rising league.