History of Major League Soccer

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The History of Major League Soccer began in 1988, when the United States Soccer Federation pledged to create a Division 1 professional soccer league as a condition to FIFA awarding the 1994 FIFA World Cup to the United States. Major League Soccer was officially formed in 1995. The league began play in 1996 with 10 teams, and in 1998 grew to 12 teams. MLS experienced some difficulties in its first seasons, with the league losing money in the early years, resulting in two teams folding after the 2001 season. MLS has rebounded since then, with increased attendance and the development of soccer-specific stadiums. MLS currently has 23 teams, with further expansion planned.


Major League Soccer is the most recent of three professional men's Division 1 national association football leagues with clubs in the United States and Canada. In the US, with no clubs in Canada, the earliest of such leagues was the American Football Association, which was formed in 1884[1] and allied with The Football Association, becoming a member on February 22, 1909, at an FA meeting chaired by Charles Clegg,[2]

The immediate predecessor of MLS was the de facto highest level of soccer played in Division 2 American Professional Soccer League that was one of two leagues tracing their genesis to the collapse of the North American Soccer League (NASL) in 1984. The NASL formed in 1968 as the merger of the United Soccer Association and National Professional Soccer League, both of which had been formed the year before. The NASL, the first league to have U.S. and Canadian professional clubs, struggled until the mid-1970s, when its average attendance had grown to 7,770, with four teams averaging over 10,000 in attendance.[3] The 1974 NASL Championship game between the Los Angeles Aztecs and the Miami Toros was televised live on CBS Sports, the first national broadcast of a pro soccer match in the United States since 1968.[4] The NASL folded after its 1984 season.

The other professional men's league starting after the NASL folded was the Canada-only Division 1 Canadian Soccer League (CSL), active from 1987 to 1992. During the positioning for Division 1 status, the CSL folded and teams from the three largest Canadian metropolitan areas, Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver joined the APSL.


In 1988, in exchange for FIFA awarding the right to host the 1994 World Cup, U.S. Soccer promised to establish a Division 1 professional soccer league.[5] In 1993, the USSF selected Major League Professional Soccer (the precursor to MLS) as the exclusive Division 1 professional soccer league. Major League Soccer was officially formed in February 1995 as a limited liability company. MLS had originally planned to begin play in 1995 with 12 teams.[6] However, MLS announced in November 1994 that it would delay its launch until 1996 and began with ten teams: Columbus Crew, D.C. United, New England Revolution, NY/NJ MetroStars, Tampa Bay Mutiny, Colorado Rapids, Dallas Burn, Kansas City Wiz, Los Angeles Galaxy, and San Jose Clash. The league had generated some buzz by managing to lure some marquee players from the 1994 World Cup to play in MLS—including U.S. stars such as Alexi Lalas, Tony Meola and Eric Wynalda, and foreign players such as Mexico's Jorge Campos and Colombia's Carlos Valderrama. Before its maiden season and inaugural draft, MLS allocated four marquee players across the initial ten teams.

Major League Soccer with ESPN and ABC Sports announced the league's first television rights deal on March 15, 1994, without any players, coaches, or teams in place.[7] The three-year agreement covered English-language broadcasting for the 1996–1998 seasons, and committed 10 games on ESPN, 25 on ESPN2, and the MLS Cup on ABC. The deal gave MLS no rights fees but split advertising revenue between the league and networks. Univision, Galavision, and UniMás broadcast matches in Spanish. The original Univision deal lapsed after a few years, leaving only the ABC/ESPN networks as the league's national broadcasters.

The early years of the league gave rise to the Bruce Arena-led dynasty of D.C. United, winning the MLS Cup in three of the league's first four seasons. The league added its first two expansion teams in 1998—the Miami Fusion and the Chicago Fire, with the Chicago Fire winning its first title in 1998 to interrupt United's dominance of the championship.

In 1996, the players filed an antitrust lawsuit, Fraser v. Major League Soccer, alleging that MLS's policy of centrally contracting players and limiting player salaries through a salary cap was an illegal conspiracy among team owners. The court ruled that MLS was a single entity and therefore incapable of conspiring with itself, and that the salary cap and other restrictions were a legal method for the League to maintain solvency and competitive parity, and avoid the problems that had plagued the defunct NASL.[8]

Early difficulties[edit]

After its first season, MLS suffered from a decline in attendance. The league's low attendance was all the more apparent in light of the fact that eight of the original ten teams began playing in stadiums owned or rented by American football teams, most of the venues with capacities of 60,000 or more.

MLS experimented with rules deviations in its early years in an attempt to "Americanize" what some viewed as a foreign sport. Some of these rules changes were borrowed from the original NASL, college soccer and high school soccer. MLS implemented the use of shootouts to resolve tie games. These best-of-five contests placed a player 35 yards from goal with five seconds to put the ball past the opposing goalkeeper; if needed the shootout progressed into extra frames. A winning team received one standings point (as opposed to three for the regulation win). MLS also used a countdown clock, rather than a standard progressive clock, with time paused for dead ball situations at a referee's discretion. Halves ended when the clock reached 0:00, rather than at the whistle of the referee as was customary elsewhere.

MLS eventually conceded that the rule changes, particularly the shootout, had alienated some traditional soccer fans while failing to draw new American sports fans as hoped. The shootout and countdown clock were eliminated after the 1999 season. MLS continued to experiment with the settling of tie games in regular season play. In 2000, a 10-minute golden goal period replaced the shootout for tied games, but was abandoned after 2003 after the sudden-death rules were abolished from the Laws of the Game.

The league's quality was cast into doubt when the U.S. men's national team, which was made up largely of MLS players, was eliminated in the first round of the 1998 World Cup by losing to all opponents in the group stage and finishing in last place.

The league began to market itself on the talents of American players, both experienced veterans and fresh talents. Breakout stars like DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan began making names for themselves in MLS before starring for the U.S. national team, while established players such as Brian McBride, Eddie Pope, and Clint Mathis continued to prove their value to both their MLS clubs and the U.S. national team.

The league's ongoing financial problems led to the departure of then-Commissioner Doug Logan in August 1999, with Don Garber, a former National Football League executive, hired as commissioner that same month.[9] Under Garber's auspices, Columbus Crew Stadium was built in 1999, becoming MLS's first soccer-specific stadium. This began a trend among the majority of MLS teams and owners to construct their own venues, abandoning their former stadiums whose main tenants were either professional or college gridiron football teams.

On the field, the early wave of international players who had joined MLS at its inception drifted into retirement or moved on to clubs elsewhere in the world. The run-up to the 2002 World Cup saw a gradual shift in the league's philosophy toward the development of American talent, a move that would eventually lead to success for U.S. soccer.

Major League Soccer lost an estimated $250 million during its first five years, and lost more than $350 million between its founding and the year 2004.[10][11] The league's poor financial condition and declining attendances forced MLS to cut expenses to reduce operating losses. Prior to the 2001 season, MLS owners agreed to freeze team budgets and refrain from signing new expensive players.[12] Also during the winter break between the 2000 and 2001 seasons, reports began circulating that MLS was considering trimming the league from 12 teams back to 10 teams.[13] MLS ultimately announced in January 2002 that it had decided to contract the two Florida franchises, the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion. This left the league with 10 teams, the same number as when MLS began. Also, the league reorganized back to the Eastern and Western Conference format after two seasons with the third Central Division.

By 2002, MLS appeared to be in poor condition. Contraction had reduced the number of teams from 12 to 10; MLS was losing money each year; a number of owners pulled out, leaving only three owners in league, with one owner Phil Anschutz owning six teams; and only one team had its own soccer-specific stadium.[14]


The 2002 World Cup, in which the United States unexpectedly made the quarterfinals through wins against Portugal and Mexico, coincided with a resurgence in American soccer and MLS.[15] MLS Cup 2002, held four months after the 2002 World Cup final, set an attendance record with 61,316 spectators at Gillette Stadium witnessing the Los Angeles Galaxy win their first title.[16] This event held the largest crowd attendance in MLS Finals and second-highest attendance in overall domestic American soccer, after the North American Soccer League championship in 1978, which held nearly 75,000 at Giants Stadium.[17]

MLS adopted the IFAB rules and standards in 2003, which included changes such as limiting teams to three substitutions per game. MLS had previously allowed a fourth, goalkeeper-only substitute, but changed the rule after MetroStars coach Bob Bradley used a loophole to insert an outfield player as a fourth substitute.

MLS drew international attention in 2004 with the debut of 14-year-old Freddy Adu for D.C. United, who entered the league with much fanfare and was heralded as one of the top prospects in American soccer history.

MLS underwent a significant transition in the years leading up to the 2006 World Cup. After marketing itself on the talents of American players, the league saw some of its homegrown stars depart for more prominent leagues in Europe. Tim Howard, goalkeeper for the MetroStars, was sold to Manchester United in one of the most lucrative contract deals in league history. DaMarcus Beasley of the Chicago Fire left for PSV Eindhoven, while Landon Donovan, on loan from Bayer Leverkusen, was recalled to Germany. Donovan's stint in Germany was brief; before the start of the 2005 MLS season he was sold back to MLS to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy.

Many more American players, though they factored little in the U.S. national team picture, did make an impact in MLS. In 2005, Jason Kreis of expansion club Real Salt Lake became the first player to score at least 100 career MLS goals. In 2005, the MLS Reserve Division was created, with each reserve squad playing 12 games, providing valuable playing time to develop non-starters on team rosters.

Part of the League's financial stabilization plan involved moving teams out of large American football stadiums and into soccer-specific stadiums. From 2003 to 2008, the League saw the construction of six additional soccer-specific stadiums, largely funded by owners such as Lamar Hunt and Phil Anschutz, so that by the end of 2008, a majority of MLS teams were now in soccer-specific stadiums.

It was also in this era that MLS expanded for the first time since the contraction of 2001. Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA began play in 2005, with Chivas USA becoming the second club in Los Angeles, sharing the Home Depot Center (now known as StubHub Center) with the Galaxy. Chivas USA also became the first team in MLS to be directly connected to a foreign club, their sister club of Guadalajara. By 2006 the San Jose Earthquakes owners, players and a few coaches moved to Texas to become the expansion Houston Dynamo, after failing to build a stadium in San Jose. The Dynamo became an expansion team, leaving their history behind for a new San Jose ownership group that would materialize in 2007.


The 2007 season was a turning point for Major League Soccer in several ways.[14] Toronto FC joined the league as an expansion team with sellout crowds and thousands of people on the waiting list for tickets; Stan Kroenke purchased the Colorado Rapids with a plan to build a soccer-specific stadium; and David Beckham joined MLS as the league's first designated player, drawing sellout crowds.[14]

Since 2007, Major League Soccer has taken steps to raise the league's level of play and to internationalize the league. Among the first moves in this regard was the Designated Player Rule, which helped MLS bring international stars into the league, despite the relatively meager MLS salary cap, and the creation of the SuperLiga, which placed top MLS clubs against top Mexican clubs in an effort to provide more meaningful competition for both leagues. MLS changed the rules regarding foreign players in the league to allow a total of eight per team.[18] This period also saw expansion reach beyond the United States' borders into Canada, beginning with Toronto FC.

The 2007 season witnessed the MLS debut of David Beckham, whose signing had been seen as a coup for American soccer. Beckham's contract with the Los Angeles Galaxy was made possible by the Designated Player Rule. Players such as Cuauhtémoc Blanco of Club América signed for the Chicago Fire, and Juan Pablo Ángel, who moved from Aston Villa to the New York Red Bulls, are some of the first Designated Players who have made major contributions to their clubs.

The departures of Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore, coupled with the return of former U.S. national team stars Claudio Reyna and Brian McBride to New York and Chicago, respectively, highlight the exchange of top prospects to Europe for experienced veterans to MLS. Several other well-known foreign players have followed Beckham and Blanco to MLS, including Guillermo Barros Schelotto to Columbus and Freddie Ljungberg to Seattle.[19]

The league announced "Game First" in 2007, a series of initiatives aimed at improving the league in several ways. This included the creation of an official league anthem by Audiobrain—similar to other competitions from around the world. There are two versions of the MLS Anthem, an orchestral version on YouTube that is performed before every regular season game and an orchestral chorus version that is played before the MLS All-Star Game and MLS Cup.

By 2008, San Jose had returned to the league under new ownership. In 2009, the expansion side Seattle Sounders FC opened to a crowd of 32,523 at Qwest Field. The 2010 season ushered in an expansion franchise in the Philadelphia Union and the opening of the New York Red Bulls' soccer-specific stadium, Red Bull Arena. That same summer saw the opening of Philadelphia's own new stadium, PPL Park and the debut of Red Bulls striker Thierry Henry,[20] the leading all-time goalscorer of Arsenal F.C. and the French national team.

The start of the 2011 season saw further expansion with the addition of the Vancouver Whitecaps FC, the second Canadian MLS franchise, and the Portland Timbers. The addition of two West Coast teams pushed the Houston Dynamo into the Eastern Conference. The Kansas City Wizards began play under the rebranded moniker of Sporting Kansas City. The 2011 season saw Real Salt Lake reach the finals of the CONCACAF Champions League. During the season, the Galaxy signed another major international star in Republic of Ireland captain and all-time leading goalscorer Robbie Keane.[21] The 2011 season drew an average attendance of 17,872, higher than the average attendances of the NBA and NHL, with nearly one third of MLS regular-season matches selling out.[22]

In 2012, the Montreal Impact became the league's 19th franchise and the third located in Canada. The Impact, after playing their first MLS game at Vancouver, made their home debut at Olympic Stadium in front of a crowd of 58,912.[23]

In 2013, MLS introduced New York City FC[24] as the league's 20th team, and Orlando City Soccer Club[25] as the league's 21st team, both to begin playing in 2015. Beginning in summer of 2013 and continuing in the run up to the 2014 World Cup, MLS began signing U.S. stars based in Europe, including Clint Dempsey and Maurice Edu from the English Premier League, and Michael Bradley from Italy's Serie A who joined England International Striker Jermain Defoe in Toronto.[26]

In 2014, MLS announced the league's 22nd team see the league return to Miami under the ownership of David Beckham, Simon Fuller and Marcelo Claure. The team will begin play in 2017 at the earliest depending on the completion of a new soccer-specific stadium.[27]

MLS announced on Oct. 27, 2014, that Chivas USA would cease operations immediately, to be replaced in 2017 with a new expansion franchise in LA.[28] The league had bought Chivas USA, which had struggled to make its mark on or off the pitch, earlier in the year for approximately $70 million.[29]

Despite not entering until 2015, New York City FC and Orlando City announced their first designated players – Spain's All-Time leading goalscorer David Villa (New York) and 2007 Ballon d'Or Winner Kaká (Orlando).

MLS Cup and Supporters' Shield winners[edit]

Season MLS Cup Supporters' Shield
1996 D.C. United Tampa Bay Mutiny
1997 D.C. United D.C. United
1998 Chicago Fire LA Galaxy
1999 D.C. United D.C. United
2000 Kansas City Wizards Kansas City Wizards
2001 San Jose Earthquakes Miami Fusion
2002 LA Galaxy LA Galaxy
2003 San Jose Earthquakes Chicago Fire
2004 D.C. United Columbus Crew
2005 LA Galaxy San Jose Earthquakes
2006 Houston Dynamo D.C. United
2007 Houston Dynamo D.C. United
2008 Columbus Crew Columbus Crew
2009 Real Salt Lake Columbus Crew
2010 Colorado Rapids LA Galaxy
2011 LA Galaxy LA Galaxy
2012 LA Galaxy San Jose Earthquakes
2013 Sporting Kansas City New York Red Bulls
2014 LA Galaxy Seattle Sounders FC
2015 Portland Timbers New York Red Bulls
2016 Seattle Sounders FC Dallas
2017 Toronto FC Toronto FC

Results by team[edit]

Team MLS
Last Cup Cup
LA Galaxy 5 2014 9 4 2011 22
D.C. United 4 2004 5 4 2007 22
Sporting Kansas City 2 2013 3 1 2000 22
Houston Dynamo 2 2007 4 0 12
San Jose Earthquakes 2 2003 2 2 2012 20
Seattle Sounders FC 1 2016 2 1 2014 9
Toronto FC 1 2017 2 1 2017 11
Portland Timbers 1 2015 1 0 7
Colorado Rapids 1 2010 2 0 22
Real Salt Lake 1 2009 2 0 13
Columbus Crew 1 2008 2 3 2009 22
Chicago Fire 1 1998 3 1 2003 20
New York Red Bulls 0 1 2 2015 22
FC Dallas 0 1 1 2016 22
New England Revolution 0 5 0 22

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Murray, C. K. (1910). "History and Progress of the AFA", Official Association Foot Ball Guide, 27.
  2. ^ "Football: The Association Cup Draw". The Manchester Guardian. February 23, 1909. p. 10. 
  3. ^ "North American Soccer League Statistics". nasljerseys.com. Retrieved January 17, 2014. 
  4. ^ "August 25, 1974 – NASL Championship Game – Miami Toros vs. Los Angeles Aztecs". WordPress. Fun While It Lasted. Retrieved January 17, 2014. 
  5. ^ FRASER v. MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER, 97 F.Supp.2d 130 (D. Mass. 2000)
  6. ^ Drew Zuhosky Daily, Major League Soccer: Still Big, Still Bold, Nearly 20 Years Later Archived 2013-12-18 at the Wayback Machine., Dec 19, 2012
  7. ^ "U.S. Pro League Moves Along By Signing a Television Deal". The New York Times. March 16, 1994. Retrieved February 22, 2012. 
  8. ^ Fraser v. Major League Soccer, 97 F.Supp.2d 130 (D. Mass 2000)
  9. ^ Chicago Tribune, Mls Boots Commissioner, Turns To Nfl For Successor, August 4, 1999
  10. ^ Holmes, Stanley (November 22, 2004). "Soccer: Time To Kick It Up A Notch". Businessweek. Retrieved May 11, 2008. 
  11. ^ New York Times, For M.L.S., the Sport's Future Is in the Eye of the Beholder, Nov 11, 2005
  12. ^ SoccerTimes.com, MLS fans in several cities wait nervously for contraction decision, Dec 27, 2001
  13. ^ ESPN.com Soccernet, MLS considering weight-loss program
  14. ^ a b c "Out of the Darkness: How MLS Commissioner Don Garber Took His League From Contraction to Expansion", Grantland, April 8, 2014. Retrieved May 26, 2014.
  15. ^ New York City FC, Learn about MLS, "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-07-20. Retrieved 2017-01-23. 
  16. ^ "MLS Cup 2002". Major League Soccer. Retrieved March 16, 2012. 
  17. ^ North American Soccer League Players, Standings, http://www.nasljerseys.com/Stats/Standings.htm
  18. ^ Davis, Steve (December 26, 2007). "Desire to maintain quality drives foreign player rule". ESPNsoccernet. Retrieved May 11, 2008. 
  19. ^ Lalas, Greg (April 17, 2007). "Foreign exchange program". Sports Illustrated. Retrieved April 22, 2007. 
  20. ^ "New York Red Bulls sign international star Thierry Henry". New York Red Bulls. July 14, 2010. Retrieved July 14, 2010. 
  21. ^ "Spurs striker Robbie Keane joins MLS side LA Galaxy". BBC Sport. August 16, 2011. Retrieved August 22, 2011. 
  22. ^ L.A. Times, MLS steadily builds toward goal of profitability, Nov 18, 2011
  23. ^ "Fire tie Impact in MLS opener". ESPN. Associated Press. March 17, 2012. Retrieved April 27, 2012. 
  24. ^ "Major League Soccer announces New York expansion team: New York City Football Club". Retrieved May 21, 2013. 
  25. ^ "MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER AWARDS EXPANSION TEAM TO ORLANDO". orlandocitysoccer.com. Orlando City Soccer Club. Retrieved November 20, 2013. 
  26. ^ MLSsoccer.com, FC Dallas technical director Fernando Clavijo waits on US internationals: "More players are coming" Jan. 30, 2014
  27. ^ "David Beckham's Miami partner Marcelo Claure says team hopes to begin play in 2017". 
  28. ^ "Chivas USA folds; MLS will realign, relaunch 2nd LA team in 2017". 
  29. ^ "MLS eyes LA solution after spending around $70 million to purchase Chivas USA".