Resurgence and Expansion of the MLS

Written by Bryan Silverman (2013)
Updated by Sarah Patterson (2015)

Major League's Soccer Logo

Major League’s Soccer Logo

Introduction of Major League Soccer

Major League Soccer (MLS) was founded in 1993 as a part of the United States’ bid for the 1994 World Cup, with its inaugural season being played in 1996. [1] Within the league, contrary to other American sports, teams are not owned by individual owners as much as they are controlled by the league’s investors. [2] The original 10 teams were the Columbus Crew, D.C. United, New England Revolution, Colorado Rapids, Los Angeles Galaxy, San Jose Clash (now the Earthquakes), NY/NJ Metrostars (now the New York Red Bulls), Dallas Burn (now FC Dallas), Kansas City Wizards (now Sporting Kansas City) and Tampa Bay Mutiny (which folded after the 2001 season). While the first season was seen as a great success, there were subsequent rapid declines in attendance that were demonstrated by the fact that eight of the original 10 teams played in NFL stadiums with capacities of more than 60,000. [3]

In order to compete on a global scale and get Americans involved, the MLS implemented a combination of rule changes and imported older, better-known players. For example, they tried to “Americanize” the sport by adding rules such as the 35 yard shootout to reconcile ties (see video below) as well as by using a countdown clock (which is familiar to us from many college sports and other popular American sports). However, they stopped enforcing these unique rules as they failed to increase the fan base and alienated the “true” soccer fans. They brought in the likes of Alexi Lalas, Jorge Campos, and Carlos Valderrama to spark initial interest, as they were globally-known players.

 

Decline

The initial decline of the MLS occurred throughout the second and third seasons as there was financial instability that led to the firing of then-commissioner Doug Logan. Furthermore, although the courts eventually sided with the MLS, players argued that the MLS and its investors were conspiring to create one league in order to monopolize the soccer market in the U.S. and, as a result, pay the players a salary below their market value. [2] Third, the general American public was wary of the quality of American soccer when, in the 1998 World Cup in France, the U.S. Men’s National Team failed to win a single game during the group stage. This showing was particularly worrisome because most of the team was made up of professional players within the MLS. Finally, the international talent that had been recruited was beginning to reach the end of their careers. As they retired, there was little support for youth soccer to sustain even the low quality that existed in the first few seasons of the professional league. As a result of the financial issues with Logan, Don Garber was hired in 1998 as the commissioner. He set off to re-establish the legitimacy of the MLS, and one of his first actions was to built the first soccer-specific stadium within the MLS in Columbus for the Columbus Crew (see below). [4]

Columbus Crew Stadium

 Columbus Crew Stadium (retrieved from http://www.thecrew.com/content/crew-stadium)

Re-establishment

Gaber’s reformation of the MLS helped to re-establish the organization as a legitimate league and the United States as an international soccer presence. His vision came to fruition in the 2002 World Cup, when the U.S. Men’s National Team beat Mexico and Portugal to make the quarterfinals. As a seemingly direct result, the 2002 MLS Cup had the highest attendance of any MLS game to date, with more than 60,000 fans in attendance. As the MLS continued with its youth movement to encourage youngsters to play and sustain a higher quality of play within the MLS, they found a media gem in Freddy Adu in 2004. As an immigrant born in Ghana who moved to the U.S. when he was eight years old, Adu was the youngest player to sign an MLS contract. In 2004, at just 14 years old, he signed with D.C. United and was the youngest player to score a goal, netting his first goal that season against the San Jose Earthquakes. At the time, Adu was referred to as “the next Pele” and someone who would become the heart and soul of the Men’s National Team. Highlights of him as a 13 and 14 year old playing on the U17 national team can be viewed in the video below. Interest peaked as the media continued to show more of the MLS on television. Increased media coverage helped raise the demand for and quality of soccer, as well as the fanbase of the MLS. [5] As the number of fans within the U.S. for the MLS increased and soccer became more popular and global, a number of bigger players migrated from the MLS to more competitive European leagues. Tim Howard moved from the MetroStars to Manchester United, DaMarcus Beasley from the Chicago Fire to PSV Eindhoven and Landon Donovan was placed on loan to Bayer Leverkusen.

 

Current

As we move into an examination of the MLS today, it is important to take a look at perhaps the most transformative rule in MLS history that has been dubbed the “Beckham Rule.” This is one of the five major goals laid out by Commissioner Garber in his Annual State of the League Address that are intended to make the MLS a “global premier league” by the year 2022. [6] The Beckham Rule, which allows for Designated Players and other high impact players to be on a team, does so by allowing 3 uncapped contract to be signed by each team within the league. Two of the top MLS signees under this rule have been David Beckham to the LA Galaxy and Theirry Henry to the New York Red Bulls. For instance, Beckham signed a five-year, $32.5 million contract which was the largest in MLS history and surpassed the salary cap of any team in the league. To put this in context, the LA Galaxy (with wages of a league-high $14.7 million) played the Houston Dynamo (with wages of $3.5 million, akin to the league average) in the 2011 MLS Cup. The Galaxy consisted of Designated Players such as David Beckham, Landon Donovan, and Robbie Keane, all three globally-known players who played in the EPL. [7] This has helped to mitigate the perception that the MLS serves as a “retirement league” for famous, globally-known players considering these teams can technically competitively pay great players to play in the MLS. Currently, the average age of these Designated Players is 27 years old, demonstrating that it is not just older players who are receiving these larger contracts.

The second goal Garber spoke about was the development of young professionals through the USL Professional League. The goal of the program is to help players that are deeper on rosters develop in a professional setting so that the MLS does not fall into a situation (like the late 1990s/early 2000s) in which the older players retire without a sufficient number of younger players to fill in the gap. The development of younger players is one of Garber’s top priorities. Third, and along with this goal, Garber announced a partnership with the French Football Foundation to develop academy players. The implementation of this program will allow players and coaches to improve in an academy-like system that we see in Europe, one that has obviously been successful in creating a fantastic soccer culture. Fourth, USL PRO will allow for the continuous improvement of referees, an aspect of the game that we have all come to love and hate (but usually hate). Garber wants the MLS to have top-notch refereeing in order to increase the pool of experienced referees available to officiate MLS games. Finally, Garber is looking at the partnership with the French Football Federation to improve coaching in order to create a holistic approach that will improve the players, the coaches, and the referees.

In addition to Garber’s foresight to improve these 3 aspects of the game, it is also important to recognize the role of fans and the stage that the MLS provides as a professional soccer league. The MLS has expanded from the original 10 teams to 19 teams, and two new franchises (New York City FC and Orlando City Soccer Club) will begin league play at the beginning of the 2015 season. NY FC, the league’s 20th franchise, has created a lot of buzz as the $100 million expansion rights were purchased by the New York Yankees and Manchester United FC. The league is looking to build a soccer-specific stadium in Flushing Meadows, an area already occupied by the annual U.S. Open and the New York Mets that can hopefully draw from this crowd. The combination of the ownership by the Yankees and Manchester City as well as the location seem to be a perfect place to raise awareness and excitement surrounding soccer in one of the most important (and subjectively, the best) cities in the world. The city of Orlando is attempting to build an $84 million, soccer-specific stadium to accommodate its new team and generate excitement surrounding this new expansion franchise. [8]

So where does this bring us with regards to placing the MLS in the framework of professional soccer leagues around the globe? I believe that Don Garber is doing a fantastic job as commissioner of improving the quality of play within the league. However, there still seems to be one piece missing (which might be countered by expansion) and that is lack of enthusiasm and fandom for soccer within the United States. Almost no other professional leagues accompany the fervor that comes with La Liga or the EPL or other top-level professional leagues, and I think that this is one extremely important way to attract top talent. The best players in the world want to play with the best wages in the world for the best fans in the world.

A solid showing for the United States in the World Cup might leave the MLS where it is right now, which is in a pretty good place. The MLS is certainly in an upswing phase of its expansion; however, in order to really prove itself as a premier global power, it needs to recruit higher-quality players (or use its grassroots system to get younger players to provide higher quality) and increase the fervor of soccer fans throughout the country. The US team’s strong showing in the 2014 World Cup might contribute to a stronger following of MLS regular season play, which begins on March 6. It will be interesting to measure a change in viewership/attendance, especially given the enormous following that the World Cup team had last summer. However, only time will tell how much American “soccer fever” during the World Cup tournament will translate to support for the professional league.

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How to cite this page: “Resurgence and Expansion of the MLS,” Written by Bryan Silverman (2013), World Cup 2014, Soccer Politics Blog, Duke University, http://sites.duke.edu/wcwp/world-cup-2014/resurgence-and-expansion-of-the-mls/ (accessed on (date)).

References

[1] Lewis, Michael. “The 1994 Bid – How the US Got the World Cup – Part 1.” U.S. Soccer. 4 July 2013. http://www.ussoccer.com/news/centennial/07/the-1994-bid-how-the-us-got-the-world-cup-part-1.aspx.

[2] “FRASER v. MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER.” Findlaw. 20 Mar. 2002. http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-1st-circuit/1441684.html.

[3]  “Major League Soccer: About.” Major League Soccerhttp://web.archive.org/web/20080625214719/http://web.mlsnet.com/about/.

[4]  “Crew Stadium.” Columbus Crewhttp://www.thecrew.com/content/crew-stadium.

[5] “Freddy Adu.” U.S. Soccer. 2013. http://www.ussoccer.com/teams/mnt/a/freddy-adu.aspx.

[6] Clark, Dave. “MLS Commissioner Don Garber delivers his annual state of league address – Seattle Sounders Football Club.”Sounders FC News and Blog. N.p., 28 Feb. 2013. http://www.soundersfc.com/news/articles/2013/02-february/garbers-annual-address.aspx.

[7]  Wahl, Grant. “Hollywood Ending: If This Was Indeed David Beckham’s Final Game in MLS, He went out in style, carrying the Galaxy to a championship and affirming the value of star power in America.” Sports Illustrated, 28 Nov. 2011. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1192446/index.htm.

[8] “Expansion of Major League Soccer.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Expansion_of_Major_League_Soccer.

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