Soccer is the most popular sport in the world, but it struggles in the USA. Despite many fans, soccer finds itself in the shadow of sports such as basketball and football. That is changing and as the years go by soccer is finding its feet in America. The MLS is more popular than ever, but it wasn’t always that way. This is the short but fascinating story of the MLS.
The 1994 World Cup
In 1988 the USA won the right to host the 1994 World Cup and with that victory made a commitment to soccer. A Division I soccer program was going to be established, and a new pro soccer league was to be formed, later known as Major League Soccer (MLS). It wasn’t until 1996 that the league began operating with just 10 teams.
Thanks to the success of the World Cup, several big-name players were interested in playing in the MLS. Alexi Lalas, a hero of the American World Cup team, Mexican goalkeeper Jorge Campos, and the iconic Colombian, Carlos Valderrama were onboard. Before the league got going, there were complains from the players about the salary cap being imposed by teams. It wasn’t the best of starts for the MLS.
The MLS began after the salary cap issue was resolved. D. C. United won the league in three of the first four seasons, and in 1998 the first expansions were welcomed. Chicago Fire were one of those and won the league in their first season. Despite initial interest in the MLS, attendances began to dwindle after just one season.
Soccer just wasn’t taking off. The MLS tried to change some of the rules to make the games feel more familiar to American sports fans. Tied games were settled with shootouts, where players would dribble the ball from the halfway line and try to score past the goalkeeper in a short amount of time. There was no need to mess with already well-established rules, and they were eventually scrapped.
Developing American talent
The original foreign talents that joined the league retired by the late ‘90s, so the MLS shifted its focus to developing American players. It proved to be a partial success as the USA began to do better internationally and in 2002, there was another soccer boom. The USA made the World Cup quarterfinals and fans were falling in love with the sport.
American players were hot property, and several were exported to European clubs, weakening the MLS. It wasn’t until David Beckham signed with LA Galaxy in 2007 that interest picked up again. More top foreign stars followed, and the MLS now is enjoying its most successful run to date. There have been many more teams added to the league, and now 24 teams battle it out for the MLS Cup.
MLS hasn’t always been as popular as it is today and it had to overcome lots of early troubles. The league has been expanded, and now several top international stars such as Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have been attracted to play in it.