Our domestic closed league model has never met the vast promise of American club soccer.
Take a quick journey through a century of debilitated, closed, capped, and restricted American professional soccer leagues. Watch storied American clubs rise to glory in the twentieth century, and revel in remarkable individual performances from American club players. Cringe as our closed leagues fall one by one, taking dozens of clubs down with them.
See our addiction to the closed model continue to debilitate the club game at the turn of the twenty-first century. Watch American sports and entertainment moguls continue to cling to the failed system, even in the face of the unprecedented global track record of the open league, free market model that delivered the pro game to unassailable global dominance.
Despite a history as long and deep as most international powers, remarkable club successes, notable international accomplishments, record-breaking individual performances, storied clubs, enhanced mechanisms to shield owners from risk, and three consecutive decades of record youth participation, our club game falls further short of reaching its promise than ever before. The USMNT progresses deeper into international competitions than at any time since 1930. European club friendlies continue to draw enormous crowds in American cities. Multiple channels of soccer play to American cable and satellite TV audiences. Youth participation in the game is enjoying a third consecutive decade of national dominance. More US households tune into World Cup matches than NBA Finals or World Series games. Still, our stunted first division, and the closed pyramid at large, cannot connect.
Today, despite the remarkable success of the reincarnated Seattle Sounders, MLS continues to cultivate only a small slice of American supporters, and a tiny percentage of sports fans as a whole. Well into its second decade, and well into the second century of professional club soccer in the US, our top league experienced another precipitous drop in average attendance. TV ratings and attendance records lag behind their NASL predecessors, and are dwarfed by international matches. Average MLS attendance records were set before some of their current players entered grade school.
For one hundred years, our closed league model has been applied to club soccer, and for one hundred years, it has failed. No matter how many times it is relabeled and regurgitated, the outcome remains the same. Today, in an effort to maintain their closed league format, MLS employs a special tightly managed “single entity” system featuring draconian cost controls and broad curbs on club autonomy. It provides life support for their failed model, but after sixteen seasons on a ventilator our American club game falls further behind the growth curve than ever before.
Albert Einstein defined insanity as “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”.
Welcome to this brief history of professional club soccer in the United States. What a long strange trip it’s been.
A group of ex-British enthusiasts meet in Newark, NJ to form the American Football Association. It is already the fourth attempt to form a national governing body for soccer.
The governing body of English football adopts an open league model featuring promotion/relegation between two top leagues of independent, professional, autonomous clubs. They decide the existing FA Cup, a competition open to every pro, amateur or league club in the country, will continue unchanged. This basic system would stay largely stable and intact until the present day, and would be embraced by the vast majority of nations over the next century.
AFA preference for semi-pro clubs drives amateur New York clubs to break away and form the American Amateur Football Association.
The first attempt is made to establish a fully professional American soccer league, and the first attempt by another major American sport to co-opt professional soccer into the budding American franchise model. The six-team American League of Professional Football (ALPF) is not promoted by any of the existing soccer associations, but is formed by a group of professional baseball owners from the National League.
ALPF collapses among heavy financial losses during its first season.
The National Association Football League (NAFL) is formed on a closed league model, but is created by lifting top teams in the New York City and New Jersey regional leagues. Founding members include Kearney Scots, who endure into the twenty first century.
NAFL is suspended due to waning fan interest.
US soccer supporters are unable to coalesce behind a national soccer organizing body, and cannot secure membership.
St. Louis Soccer League goes professional, but does not adopt promotion/relegation open league model that has already produced a thriving, stable pro league in England.
NAFL is revived, again under a closed league model.
After nine years of infighting between AFA and AAFA, FIFA finally accepts AAFA assembled bid for US membership - the United States Football Association. Despite this victory for supporters of the professional game, a divisive rift between professional and amateur club supporters will persist for fifty more years.
The Southern New England Football League forms under a closed league model.
In a move designed in part to purge poor, low performing clubs stagnating in their respective closed leagues, NAFL merges with SNEFL to form the nucleus of the American Soccer League. This marks the beginning of the first golden age of US club soccer.
Sam Marks builds first large capacity soccer specific stadium in the United States in East Providence, RI. It becomes home of the Fall River Marksmen.
ASL becomes the second most popular pro sport league in the United States behind baseball’s National League.
Fall River Marksmen celebrate their first ASL championship.
ASL refuses to allow its clubs to enter the National Open Challenge Cup (later to become the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup)
American Archie Stark sets current world record for most goals scored in a single season for a top flight club – 67 in 42 games for Bethlehem Steel, FC.
Attendance at ASL matches regularly passes 10,000.
Vienna Hakoah, an all-Jewish side, tours the US. first three matches against ASL opponents draw 25,000, 30,000 and 36,000 spectators respectively. The tour culminates in the famous May 1 1926 match against the ASL New York Giants at the Polo Grounds. The game draws 46,000 spectators, an attendance record for an American soccer match that will stand until 1977. ASL establishes first international club league with three ASL and five top Canadian clubs.
The problem of cash strapped low performing clubs lingering in a closed league strikes again. Recently purchased Philadelphia FC struggles mightily out of the box and id dropped from the season via a league office decision. In order to balance the schedule the league abruptly drops Hartford, another struggling team.
American "Soccer War" begins, and the ASL flounders. ASL announces that it wants the Open Cup competition moved to the end of the league season or its teams exempted until the season was over. The USFA refuses, and the ASL orders teams not to participate. Bethlehem Steel FC, Newark Skeeters and New York Giants defy league and participate anyway. ASL President Bill Cunningham institutes fines and suspensions on these clubs, who appeal to the USFA. ASL refuses an order from the USFA to reverse these actions and is suspended by the USFA.
ASL continues to operate as an outlaw league, and the USFA assembles the three renegade ASL teams with other clubs from the Southern New York State Association, leading to dispute between the SNYSA and the USFA. SNYSA teams up with the ASL against the regional Eastern Soccer League and USFA.
The New Bedford Whalers jump to the ESL mid season.
Disappointed in the quality of ESL play, New Bedford jumps back to the ASL.
The ASL and USFA reach an exhausted compromise. ASL abandons partially competed fall 1929 season, and in another move to purge the league of poor, underperforming clubs, merges strongest teams with better ESL teams to form the Atlantic Coast League.
La Liga forms as the first division of Spanish club soccer and unites top clubs under an open league model featuring promotion and relegation.
Serie A forms as the first division of Italian club soccer and unites top clubs under an open league model featuring promotion and relegation.
The Golden Age of American Soccer reaches it's apex. US advance to the semis in the first World Cup, with a team composed of ASL players. This remains the best US finish in FIFA's signature tournament.
The first in a long line of storied American soccer clubs to expire in a closed league, Bethlehem Steel FC folds. Their soccer specific stadium, Steel Field, is still in use by Moravian College today.
Storied SNESL and ASL club Fall River Marksmen folds.
ASL is reorganized out of existence, ending the first golden age of U.S. club soccer.
The second American Soccer League (ASL II) formed with entirely new line up of clubs as a closed league - but elevates strongest amateur and semi pro teams from local leagues, including storied NAFBL clubs Kearny Scots and Kearny Irish. Initially, league is confined to NY/NJ/Philadelphia region. It will become longest surviving extra-regional league in US history.
USMNT exits World Cup in first round, losing to Italy 7-1.
Kearny Scots win first of five consecutive ASL II league titles.
ASL II sponsors first Charlton Athletic US tour.
First national professional league formed in Mexico.
United States Football Association changes name to United States Soccer Football Association.
North American Soccer Football League (NASFL) formed on the closed franchise league model.
ASL II sponsors first Liverpool FC US tour.
USMNT stun England 1-0 in first round of World Cup, despite a roster composed largely of amateurs.
ASL II sponsors first Manchester United US tour.
The second International Soccer League (ISL II) a closed league formed with off season international clubs including Bayern Munich, Sporting Lisbon, and Red Star Belgrade, and a U.S. club of stars from ASL II.
West German soccer unites from regional, semi-professional closed leagues into the modern Bundesliga and adopts an open league model featuring promotion and relegation.
ISL II folds.
ASL II expands nationally with franchises in the Midwest and Northeast.
Inspired by high American television audiences for the World Cup, two rival investment groups led by owners of other professional sports franchises form the United Soccer Association (USA) and the National Professional Soccer Association (NPSL). Both are closed franchise leagues. They are the second and third attempts made by owners of other major American pro sports to co-opt US club soccer. The United Soccer Association is led by NFL owners Lamar Hunt and Jack Kent Cooke and wins FIFA sanction. NPSL owners include NFL greats Dan Reeves and Bill Bidwell.
Per the ISL II model, the USA imports entire international clubs for their inaugural season in order to get a leg up on NPSL rivals.
USA and NPSL compete for the same market and nearly go bankrupt.
USA and NPSL both purge low performing clubs in each league and merge to form the North American Soccer League. It retains the closed league franchise model.
NASL drops to five clubs.
New York Cosmos admitted into NASL
The Atoms enjoy a season in Veterans Stadium, and the SI cover curse. They would never win the league.
Seattle Sounders admitted into NASL.
San Jose Earthquakes admitted into NASL.
NASL’s New York Cosmos sign Pele.
The second golden age of U.S. club soccer begins.
NASL reaches twenty clubs.
Timbers on the air.
NASL all time leading scorer Giorgio Chinaglia joins Cosmos
Pele and the Cosmos defeat the Sounders in Soccer Bowl '77.
Playoff game between the Cosmos and the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers draws 77,691 fans to Giants Stadium, breaking the record set by Vienna Hakoa and the ASL’s New York Giants a half century earlier.
San Jose Earthquakes feature a squad that includes Guus Hiddink and the legendary George Best at the helm.
ABC averages 2.7 rating for NASL telecasts – about 2 million households – more than double the ratings of any single MLS Cup telecast.
ASL II, the longest surviving closed franchise professional soccer league in the world, folds.
United Soccer League (not to be confused with the United Soccer Leagues) formed on the closed franchise model.
Seattle Sounders drop out of NASL.
(approx) Soccer becomes the most popular youth sport in the United States.
Los Angeles Coliseum draws large crowds for Olympic soccer matches.
Western Alliance Challenge Series (Later the western Soccer Alliance) another closed franchise league, begins with teams in San Jose, Victoria, Seattle and Portland, playing an abbreviated 7-game season.
Chicago Sting win Soccer Bowl.
NASL, seventh in a line of extra regional American top division soccer leagues employing the closed franchise model, folds.
The most storied US club since the Fall River Marksmen and Bethlehem Steel FC, New York Cosmos is reorganized into a local soccer academy.
Portland Timbers reincarnated into WSA.
Only four professional outdoor soccer clubs remain in North America – the lowest number since 1905.
USMNT fail to qualify for World Cup final.
Lone Star Soccer Alliance debuts in Texas and surrounding states as a closed franchise league.
The third American Soccer League (ASL III) debuts as a closed franchise league in the eastern US.
FIFA awards World Cup 1994 to the US on the condition that the USSF establish a first division professional league.
Paul Caligiuri scores lone goal against Trinidad and Tobago to put the US into the World Cup Final for the first time in forty years.
Sunbelt Indoor Soccer League (SISL) a closed franchise indoor league based in Florida and run by Former NASL executive Francisco Marcos, debuts an eight-club outdoor season.
FIFA endorsed candidate Alan Rothenberg defeats long time incumbent USSF President Werner Fricker.
ASL III merges with the WSA to form the American Professional Soccer League (APSL) under the closed franchise model. FIFA sanctions APSL as the US second division league. Together, they employ future US MNT stars Marcelo Balboa, Tab Ramos, Kasey Keller and John Harkes.
APSL nearly folds, but survives through another purge of non-performing, financially weak US clubs from a closed franchise league.
SISL outdoor league grows to 21 clubs under a closed franchise model and is renamed the United States Interregional Soccer League (USISL).
An investment group headed by USSF President Alan Rothenberg, APSL, USISL, and the indoor MISL all vie for FIFA first division sanction.
The closed franchise Canadian Soccer League folds.
J-League inaugural season marks the beginning of an open league model, featuring promotion and relegation, for Japanese club soccer. Japanese professional baseball maintains American closed franchise model.
Rothenberg led group prevails in battle for US first division club soccer and Major League Soccer (MLS) is born.
FIFA sanctions MLS despite continued adherence to a closed franchise model – the eighth such national attempt in US club soccer history.
USMNT play record 34 matches in preparation for 1994 World Cup Final – nearly a full club season in many countries.
World Cup USA draws record 3.6 million spectators, at a record average of 67,000 per game, despite the fact that the country does not have a running first division soccer league.
USMNT advance to second round for the first time since 1930.
Seattle Sounders reincarnated into APSL.
APSL changes name to A-League.
In a consolidation of power unprecedented in over one hundred years of professional US club soccer, the A-League and USISL work out an agreement to act as farm systems for the MLS.
For the first time, the United States has a recognized three-tiered league structure, sanctioned by FIFA – although clubs are still institutionally blocked from moving between divisions.
Major League Soccer (MLS) arrives and places a high priority on relative team parity and discount pro-sport ticket pricing. In response to the problems their predecessors encountered applying the American closed franchise model to national club soccer, MLS is armed with an unprecedented array of intrusive top-down policies and procedures. On paper, MLS is organized under a single entity corporate structure but with teams managed by investor/owners as separate franchises. In reality, the league office manages all player salaries, signings, allocations, approves all trades limits teams to five foreigners, institutes a salary cap of $1.25 million per team and a maximum player salary of $175,000. Investor/owners of each team “invest” to the tune of $75 million - ostensibly to cover expected operating losses for the first five seasons of the league. Ten corporate sponsors sign, and television contracts are signed with ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and Univision. NFL owner and long time soccer supporter Lamar Hunt is a major investor.
DC United wins inaugural MLS Cup.
MLS average attendance hits all time high of 17,695.
USISL establish Select League of top teams in an effort to gain second division status.
Select League and A-League merge and receive second division status under A-League name.
MLS average attendance drops by over 1000 fans per game.
DC United wins CONCACAF Champions Cup.
DC United become champions of the western hemisphere by defeating South American club champion Vasco De Gama in the InterAmerican Cup.
USISL changes name to United Soccer Leagues.
A-League is absorbed into USL-1 and recognized as American second division, USL-2 as third division.
Former NFL International chief Don Garber named Commissioner of MLS.
MLS average attendance drops to all time low of 13,366.
LA Galaxy wins CONCACAF Champions Cup.
MLS contracts to ten teams by purging low performing and financially struggling Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion from league.
Portland Timbers reincarnated into A-League/USL-1.
In their best showing since 1930, USMNT advance to quarterfinals in the World Cup.
San Jose Earthquakes reincarnated into MLS.
MLS sells Tim Howard to Manchester United for $4 million transfer fee.
World Cup Final between Italy and France draws roughly 17 million US viewers – roughly 16 million more viewers than any single MLS Cup.
MLS sells Clint Dempsey to Fulham, FC for $4 million transfer fee
Once In A Lifetime – The Extraordinary story of the New York Cosmos debuts in theatres.
San Jose Earthquakes moved to Houston and become the Dynamo.
David Beckham signs with MLS.
MLS average attendance rises to 16,202.
MLS sells Jozy Altidore to Spanish first division club Villareal for record transfer fee of $10 million.
San Jose Earthquakes re-reincarnated into MLS.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter announces that preference will be given to prospective World Cup host nations who adopt an open league model featuring promotion and relegation.
Australia’s soccer governing body announces plans to move from franchise model to open league model featuring promotion and relegation.
Once completed, this move will leave the United States the last major soccer nation running a closed league franchise model for domestic club play.
Average MLS attendance drops 1.8%.
Soccerreform.us forms. After more than a century of closed league failures, it is the first American organization devoted to changing the domestic league structure in which American club soccer has repeatedly floundered. The group argues for the full adoption of the open league model, featuring promotion, relegation and independent clubs.
Seattle Sounders re-reincarnated into MLS for a reported franchise fee of $30 million, and average nearly 30,000 fans per game.
MLS sets Portland Timbers re-reincarnation for 2011.
As of early June, MLS average attendance drops 8.8%, despite Seattle’s remarkable success.
USL-1 club Puerto Rico Islanders advance further than all MLS teams in CONCACAF Champions League play.
US President Barack Obama announces bid for 2018 World Cup Final.
David Beckham, on loan from MLS to AC Milan, makes it known that he would like to stay with the Italian club instead of returning to the LA Galaxy – despite being promised an MLS franchise upon retirement.
MLS announces plans to reincarnate Portland Timbers into MLS.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber threatens to move storied DC United unless a new stadium deal is struck.
As of early June, MLS average attendance drops 8.8%, despite Seattle’s remarkable success.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber responds to question on promotion/relegation and open league play on the MLS web site:
“Unfortunately our country does not have the infrastructure to support promotion/relegation at this time. We’ll continue to monitor this, but it will likely be at least ten years before promotion/relegation could ever be considered.”
Inter Milan and Chelsea play a preseason friendly in front of more than 81,000 fans – selling out the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
Americans lead the way in World Cup 2010 ticket sales.
Seattle Sounders cap season ticket sales three months prior to opening day with their stadium half empty.