Founded in December 1993, Major League Soccer (MLS) is men’s professional soccer league representing the highest level of the sport in the US and Canada. Operating under the continental governing body CONCACAF, MLS has 22 teams and several soccer-specific stadiums.
The 1996 inaugural season of the MLS had only ten teams competing. Early on, the league faced financial woes and operational issues, with millions of dollars lost and teams playing to nearly empty stadiums. This resulted in two teams folding in 2002. However, things started to turn around for the sport when unexpectedly United States made it to the quarterfinals in the 2002 FIFA World Cup. This ignited an interest in the sport across the country. Today, with decent tickets sales and soccer specific stadiums, full, the average MLS attendance exceeds that of the National Hockey League (NHL) and the National Basketball Association (NBA).
The Origins of the MLS – Establishment and Setbacks
Major League Soccer was established officially in February 1995 as a limited liability company. It began its work in 1996 with ten teams on the list. The first game ever played in the MLS was on April 6, 1996, between D.C. United and San Jose Clash. The game played at the Spartan Stadium in front of 31,000 fans was broadcast live on ESPN. In the beginning, the organization was able to attract crowds thanks to big marquee names from the 1994 World Cup. However, attendance soon started to decline steeply. Part of this decline was due to the MLS experimenting with the rules in the early days in an attempt to try to “Americanize” the sport. This caused the traditional fans of the sport to feel disenchanted and at the same time failed to attract new fans. Further trouble for the league began when the US men’s national team finished last at the 1998 World Cup in France.
The Rise of MLS
Thanks to the US national team making it to the quarterfinals in the 2002 FIFA World Cup, there was a renewed interest in the sport across the country. The 2002 MLS Cup managed to bring in 61,316 supporters to the Gillette Stadium, the largest ever attendance for any MLS Cup Final. In 2005, MLS adopted the International Football Association Board (IFAB) rules for the game and began playing according to the international standards of soccer. Further stabilization for the league occurred when teams started moving out of American football stadiums into soccer-specific home grounds. Six soccer specific stadiums were built between 2003 and 2008.
Designated Players – The Beckham Rule
The 2007 MLS season saw the introduction of a new Designated Player Rule, widely referred to as the Beckham Rule. This rule allowed international stars to surpass the salary cap and join MLS teams. The debut of David Beckham in the MLS is typically associated with this rule. In 2010, French striker, Thierry Henry debuted in the MLS, followed by Robbie Keane from Ireland. Soon, Major League Soccer games started attracting larger crowds than even the NBA and the NHL. In 2011, the average attendance stood at a high of 17,872. Since then, the league has also expanded to Canada.
Major League Soccer Today
In recent years, Major League Soccer has expanded further by adding more teams. In 2013, New York City FC was added as the 20th team and the Orlando City Soccer Club as the 21st team. The “Core Players” initiative was introduced in 2013 which allowed leagues to retain their key players instead of losing them to more established foreign leagues. In 2014, fifteen out of the nineteen MLS head coaches had at one time played in the MLS. Atlanta United FC was added as the 22nd franchise in 2014, all set to start playing in the 2017 season. In the same year, the new logo for the league was also unveiled. In early 2015, two more teams were announced, the Los Angeles FC and Minnesota United. The 20th season of MLS saw some of the biggest names from the international arena play in the MLS. These included Kaka, Andrea Pirlo, Didier Drogba, David Villa, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. With another round of expansion planned in 2020, the increasing fan base, rising ownership bids and international players taking interest in the league, MLS tickets are expected to be in high demand.
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