Major League Soccer: Looking Back at 17 Years of MLS

Jo-Ryan SalazarSenior Analyst IDecember 20, 2010

20 Oct 1996:  John Harkes of DC United hoists the Alan I Rothenberg Cup after his team defeated the Los Angeles Galaxy in the Major League Soccer Championship MLS game at Foxboro Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts. DC United won 3-2 in overtime. Mandatory
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

This league is just 17, if you know what I mean.

But before I proceed to give you my most vain attempt at serenading/inundating you with Beatles classics hither and thither, I want to take this time to look back at Major League Soccer. It has grown in leaps and bounds. While the talent is still developing and has a ways yet to go before it reaches the level of the best leagues in the world, it is a reputable league in its own right.

Last Friday marked the 17th anniversary of MLS's birth into the world. THe USA was several months away from successfully hosting association football's showcase event in the FIFA World Cup. In Las Vegas, a town that is known for dreaming big and bringing out the best in those who dream, a man by the name of Alan I. Rothenberg presented the framework for this league and unveiled its logo on Dec. 17.

I was only 9 years old when this came out. Up until then, all I was used to seeing was the Big Four of Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League. I didn't know that Los Angeles would have its very own team.

But it would in the Los Angeles Galaxy. I remember opening the paper, and lo and behold, it announced on the sports page the launch of this league. Interesting.

“It was a very exciting time,” said MLS President Mark Abbott, who was a senior vice president for business development at the time.

“There was a FIFA executive committee meeting where Alan presented the basic business plan for what became MLS. And immediately after that, we went into a press conference where Alan announced that FIFA had reviewed and approved the plan that we had put in place for what ultimately would become the league."

Design firms were commissioned to submit 15 to 20 logos each before the group was whittled down to a handful of finalists.  “The one I liked is ultimately what became the logo, but Alan was leaning towards a different one,” Abbott said. “Alan’s wife also liked the winning logo and that may have played a part in the final decision.”

At first,  FIFA was reluctant to give the USA the 1994 FIFA World Cup. Sepp Blatter, Joao Havelange and the rest of the Executive Committee were asking, "Wait a sec, you Yanks; don't you have a league or something?" If it wasn't for the formation of MLS, fans wouldn't have seen record attendances for matches held at American football stadiums.

This isn't a joke, peoples. The reason why the 1994 FIFA World Cup was a smash hit was because of MLS being born in Sin City. Now, there were 22 cities that applied to have an MLS club, but only 10 teams could be had.

Those teams were the Columbus Crew, D.C. United, the New England Revolution, the NY/NJ MetroStars (now New York Red Bulls), the Tampa Bay Mutiny (who folded a few years later), the Colorado Rapids, the Dallas Burn (now FC Dallas), the Kansas City Wiz (now Sporting Kansas City), the Los Angeles Galaxy and the San Jose Clash (now Houston Dynamo after relocation, though a new team was established in San Jose soon after).

A young has to go through growing pains if it wants to become strong and viable. 1998 was a year of transition for MLS. After declining attendance to go with an embarassing performance at the 1998 FIFA World Cup, outgoing commissioner Doug Logan was replaced by current MLS Commissioner Don Garber, who made sweeping changes to the face of the league.

Now the league shifted its focus towards developing local talent while constructing soccer-specific stadiums for its clubs, the first being Columbus Crew Stadium in 1999. The development of American stars like DaMarcus Beasley, Tim Howard and Landon Donovan set the stage for a resounding performance at the 2002 FIFA World Cup.

The 2006 season was another year of transition for MLS, as many American players signed contracts abroad. Along the same lines, new teams such as Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake began play with the league's expansion.

Now there are teams in Toronto, Seattle (which originally applied to have its own club during the league's launch), Portland, Philadelphia and Vancouver, with Montreal and perhaps one more city waiting in the wings.

The following year, the Designated Player Rule was introduced as part of MLS's efforts to internationalize the league and raise its level of play. The rule was nickhamed the "Beckham Rule" as the Galaxy's David Beckham was the first player signed under this rule.

Today, MLS operates under a single-entity structure in which teams are centrally controlled, though not owned, by the league. In order to keep costs under control, revenues are shared throughout the league, player contracts are negotiated by the league, and ultimately players are contracted not with individual teams but with the league itself.

As a result of these measures, new ownership groups like Red Bull GmbH have added more dollars and cents into the league, taking slack off it in the process.

"The sale [of the MetroStars to Red Bull] was part of a plan to have [the Anschutz Entertainment Group] decrease its holdings in MLS," Garber said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. "We're pushing Hunt Sports to do the same thing."

Hunt Sports owns the Crew and FC Dallas, while AEG owns the Galaxy and Dynamo. All in all, the league now has 17 owners for 19 clubs

In the future, as MLS reaches adulthood and profitability, you can expect each club to have its own owner. The perks? All owners will have the rights to a certain number of players they develop through their club's academy system each year, sharing the profits of Soccer United Marketing, and being able to sell individual club jersey sponsorships.

And speaking of academies, according to the rules, every team in the league must have a youth development program. If every clubs in MLS is able sign up to two of its own youth players to the senior team each year, all teams will have an incentive to improve the quality of the league's talent in an organic way that will also benefit the league through transfer fees for outgoing players.

Every major club around the world has some sort of football acaqdemy, and it is apparent MLS is following the lead.

Mmmmm. Organic.

Never mind that U.S. Soccer has hired the first full-time professional referees in league history, along with the fact that the league has its own anthem. It has similar symphonic blends as that from, say, a certain competition involving some of the most storied clubs from all over Europe.

But this is all proof that Major League Soccer is maturing as it turns 17. Here's to MLS completing two decades of providing some of the best association football the USA can offer...and beyond.



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