With Major League Soccer’s 25th season days away, we decided to look back on some of the major events in league history. From 1996 to present day, the league has seen some incredible highs and some cautionary lows. However, one thing remains true – the league, owners, players, and everyone else involved have done a praiseworthy job in raising the profile of soccer in the U.S. and Canada in a relatively short period of time.
Focusing on a few of the incredible highs, we asked around the GESM office for thoughts on the league’s proof point moments.
1. Soccer-specific stadium dreams come true with Crew Stadium
The evolution of team infrastructure in MLS is arguably the most noticeable proof point of the league’s first 24 seasons. In 1996, all ten inaugural teams played their soccer in college or professional football stadiums that averaged 73,000 seats. This led to many matches having a tepid atmosphere while looking consistently undersold on television. That all changed in 1999 when the Columbus Crew, under the ownership of team owner Lamar Hunt, built and opened Crew Stadium – the first soccer-specific stadium in league history.
Crew Stadium opened on May 15th, 1999 to the tune of a standing room only crowd of 24,741 as the Crew defeated the New England Revolution. Crew Stadium was the exact opposite of those empty football stadiums of the past, they grew attendance and generated an atmosphere which bolstered fan culture in America. Since then, Crew Stadium has hosted pivotal FIFA World Cup Qualifiers, the 2003 FIFA Women’s World Cup, multiple MLS Cups and more, proving its importance in the history of American soccer. In 2020, 18 of the league’s 26 teams will be playing in their own soccer-specific stadium, all of whom were lead by the Hardest Working Team in America and their belief in not what American soccer was at the time, but what it could be.
2. 2002 FIFA World Cup raises profile of MLS
Fans of the U.S. Men’s National Team weren’t expecting much when the team left America for the 2002 FIFA World Cup in South Korea and Japan. 1998 was a disaster and the 2002 team was one considered to be in transition – Landon Donovan, who’s that? That all changed when a cinderella run by the Red, White, and Blue ended in controversial fashion in the quarterfinals to eventual runners-up, Germany. That group of players left the U.S. as relative nobodies and returned stars and that new stardom was felt notably by MLS.
11 of the 23 players on the World Cup roster plied their trade in MLS, most notably Landon Donovan (Earthquakes) and DaMarcus Beasley (Chicago Fire) who would both become the face of the program for a generation. One can’t look much further than the 2002 MLS Cup which brought 61,316 fans to Gillette Stadium, an attendance record that wasn’t broken until 2018. At the end of the day, the 2002 FIFA World Cup provided an opportunity for MLS to gain steam off the backs of increased media attention and fan support of our domestic players. We’ll never forgive Torsten Frings for his handball on the line, by the way.
3. Beckham’s arrival puts LA Galaxy, MLS on international radar
There has not been a singular moment that has changed the profile of MLS as significantly as David Beckham’s arrival. The league went from an afterthought to most general sports fans and media to the must-see sporting attraction in the country. When reports of Beckham’s arrival to the LA Galaxy began to form, it immediately jumped to “breaking news” on ESPN and other media outlets – he was everywhere and for good reason. He was arguably the world’s most recognized sporting figure at the time, seamlessly crossing the perilous divide between sports and pop-culture. His arrival led to MLS finally selling out those once cavernous football stadiums – which now roared with every one of his touches.
Increased attendance wasn’t the only change Beckham helped usher in to MLS. His signing created a significant rule change which eventually helped grow the profile of the league even further – the Designated Player. This rule allowed owners to bring in high value, big name players whose majority of yearly salary did not count against the league’s salary cap. This rule brought in household names such as Thierry Henry, Cuauhtémoc Blanco, Sebastian Giovinco and Zlatan Ibrahimović among others.
4. Supporter culture hits mainstream with Toronto FC
I’d be remiss if I didn’t start this off by acknowledging that MLS clubs have had their own unique supporter culture since day one, including the Barra Brava and Screaming Eagles in RFK’s bouncing stands. However, when Toronto FC entered the league in 2007 the whole dynamic changed. Supporter group culture and the attention given to the passion and uniqueness of each market took center stage.
I can’t look back at the history of the league without admiring how cool it felt to be watching a game and seeing streamers rain down on opposing players as they prepared to take a corner kick.
5. Kansas City rebrand ushers in new identity, era
Near the bottom of attendance averages, playing in a lower league baseball stadium, and its merchandise being outsold by generic MLS gear, the Kansas City Wizards were at a crossroads in 2010: adapt, or become a footnote in MLS history.
The club’s new ownership decided to adapt. They built a new, world-class stadium in what is now called Children’s Mercy Park and gave the club’s brand a complete overhaul that turned the bottom-feeding Wizards into the powerhouse we now know as Sporting Kansas City.
The rebrand ushered in an era of success on and off the field, with a haul of four trophies in the next decade and an average attendance capacity of 100.7% in 2019, making it one of the greatest rebrands in all of sports.
6. Seattle proves NFL stadiums can be viable
After MLS was no longer a shiny new toy and the 1994 FIFA World Cup disappeared further and further into the rearview mirror, multiple teams were playing in cavernous, once-filled NFL stadiums whose capacities were too big to support the product on the field. As the league went through its roller coaster of viability and soccer-specific stadiums became more appropriate for the nascent league, it seemed as if the league had found the right stadium capacity range.
— Seattle Sounders FC (@SoundersFC) November 10, 2019
However, that all went out the window when Seattle entered the league in 2009 and hit attendance numbers not seen since the mid-1990s. Sharing an ownership group with the NFL’s Seahawks meant the Sounders too would play in CenturyLink Field (then Qwest Field). Since their debut 11 years ago, Seattle has averaged just under 41,000 fans each regular season and when they lifted the MLS Cup trophy in front of their own fans in 2019, they did so while setting an all-time attendance record of 69,274.
7. Fans demand expansion team – hello, Philadelphia!
This one hits close to home for me. As someone whose been a fan of the league since day one, I never had a team to really call my own. I was a pseudo-fan of D.C. United from the jump because that’s the team my dad latched onto, but I never truly felt connected. That obviously changed when MLS awarded an expansion franchise to Philadelphia in the late 2000s. This one just felt different, mostly thanks to the groundswell of support from local fans, namely the Sons of Ben, who long advocated for a team. If Toronto helped usher in an attention on supporter groups, the Sons of Ben took the torch and ran with it… all the way to New York Red Bulls and D.C. United games despite not having a team, yet.
8. MLS academies become a viable way to build team rosters
It was not that long ago when MLS teams did not invest in their youth systems leaving the development of local talent to non-affiliated youth clubs in the area. Now in 2020, we find a majority of MLS clubs funding multi-million dollar youth academies providing access to local youth players for free. This has begun to pay dividends as many teams see this as a legitimate pathway to build successful first teams. Take FC Dallas for example, who has signed a total of 27(!) homegrowns to their professional roster, many of whom currently make up the first team. Furthermore, as the league begins to recognize training compensation, look for more teams to not only see homegrowns as assets on the field, but as financial assets worth investing in.
9. Inbound, outbound transfers reshape MLS
In 2015, Toronto FC signed Sebastian Giovinco after the player left Juventus. The signing of the 27-year-old Italian is arguably the first time in league history when an internationally known player in the prime of his career left Europe for to play in MLS. He cost Toronto a pretty penny (some $7 million per season), but it paid dividends both on and off the field. Yes, Giovinco isn’t Ronaldo, Messi, or Neymar, but his signing helped usher in a new era of MLS where players in their prime see the league as a viable option.
On the flip side, one year later expansion side Atlanta United signed a young playmaker from Paraguay. The introduction of Miguel Almiron as a young Designated Player signaled one thing – the transition of the league to a selling league where young players can ply their trade, raise their profile, and be sold at higher value to other clubs. In 2019, Atlanta sold Almiron to Newcastle for $27 million – roughly triple what they paid for him. This is a trend that will continue for players from across the Americas as they look for a economically stable league to showcase their talents.
10. Updated MLS All-Star Game format drives regional interest
MLS has had an amazing first 24 seasons with many more ahead. While this is slightly cheating, one of my favorite memories (I’m assuming it will be) is the new structure of the MLS All-Star Game that features MLS All-Stars vs. Liga MX All-Stars. Outside of being a great business decision, it brings flair and rivalry to a game that could easily be thought of as an afterthought as it often is in other leagues (I see you NBA and the allergies to defense at All-Star).
MLS All-Stars vs. LIGA MX All-Stars
This is going to be goooood. 👀 pic.twitter.com/8iHPncpcjM
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) November 20, 2019
The shift around MLS All-Star also signals a seismic change, of sorts, in how the league views its role in lifting North American soccer to greater heights. The embracing of Mexican-American players and iconic El Tri internationals like Carlos Vela and Chicharito is particularly noteworthy as Liga MX and MLS, the two most important leagues in Concacaf, continue to work together during the 6-year countdown to the 2026 FIFA World Cup. The revised All-Star Game is just one step in a much larger regional plan of cohesion.