From California to the New York island, and right here in the Twin Cities, soccer is taking this land by storm. More and more professional and semi-professional teams are cropping up across the nation each season, ensuring that no matter where you are, you aren’t too far from the beautiful game. But this hasn’t always been the case.
To call the history of professional soccer in America a rollercoaster would be an understatement. Since 1894, there have been nearly a dozen attempts to establish consistent pro leagues, most of which failed immediately or after just a few years. At long last, though, it seems that the soccer dark ages are firmly behind us as Major League Soccer nears its third decade of play. Join me on a trip down memory lane as I dive into the history of America’s premier men’s soccer league and take a look at where we could go from here.
Getting the Ball Rolling
It all started in 1988. FIFA was set to announce the hosts of the 1994 World Cup, with the USA, Brazil, and Morocco all hoping to land the tournament. After some deliberation over the preparedness of each potential host nation, soccer’s governing body officially awarded the competition to the Stars and Stripes on Uncle Sam’s birthday, but there were strings attached.
To be allowed to host the World Cup, FIFA told the United States Soccer Federation that they had to form a sustainable professional soccer league. Awarding the world’s biggest soccer tournament to a country without a league of its own was a pretty wild idea, but it ended up being the most successful edition of all time. Good call, FIFA; thanks for believing in us.
With the World Cup in the rearview mirror, it was time to get the new league started. In 1996, Major League Soccer was introduced to the world. With wild team names and outlandish jersey designs, MLS immediately stood out as a unique addition to the global sports landscape. The original 10 members were the Columbus Crew, New York/New Jersey MetroStars, San Jose Clash, Tampa Bay Mutiny, Kansas City Wizards, Dallas Burn, D.C. United, LA Galaxy, Colorado Rapids, and the New England Revolution. Now that’s American soccer.
Only eight of the original squads remain, and most of them go by different names nowadays. Tampa Bay and San Jose both folded, though they were replaced elsewhere to keep numbers up. The MetroStars became the Red Bulls, the Wizards are now Sporting Kansas City and the Burn turned into FC Dallas. European influence started to creep into league branding as the years went by, resulting in a lot of “FC’s” and “United’s” in the seasons to come.
Most games were played in football stadiums in the early days, emphasizing Major League Soccer’s status as a fledgling movement in a country that was only just starting to warm up to the idea of having its own league. It wasn’t until the Crew moved into the nation’s first soccer-specific stadium in 1999 that the league officially started putting its own roots down, and we haven’t looked back since.
Adding Some Pizzazz
After 10 years, MLS grew to 12 teams. Talented players and exciting moments were turning it into a league worth watching, but the real turning point in the search for legitimacy didn’t come until 2007.
Not only was this the inaugural year for expansion side Toronto FC, officially bringing Canada into the MLS fold, but it was also the season that saw superstar David Beckham join the LA Galaxy. Following his impressive stint with Real Madrid, Beckham decided to make his way to the States, and he brought the eyes of the soccer world across the pond with him.
At the time, he was easily the most notable player to ever join MLS, bringing global recognition that the league had only ever dreamt of. His decision to come here, his outstanding play on the field, and his unique commitment to the growth of the American game transformed Major League Soccer forever, and he’s still making an impact to this day.
In the years that followed Beckham’s time in MLS, plenty of European stars came and went. French phenom Thierry Henry arrived after the 2010 World Cup, playing for the New York Red Bulls until he retired in 2014. Several English stars followed Beckham’s lead, including Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard, but none made quite the impact that Becks did.
From 2007 to 2018, the league grew from 13 to 23 teams. The addition of both the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers boosted the league’s attendance numbers and helped spread the game to the communities that were craving it. The best addition to the league lineup undoubtedly came in 2017, though, when Minnesota United joined the fray.
In 2018, the league’s next big signing finally came, and boy was this guy fun. Zlatan Ibrahimovic decided to take a break from dominating European soccer to show us Americans how it’s done, scoring one of the greatest goals in league history with his first touch in a Galaxy jersey. Though his time here was different than Beckham's, Zlatan's pedigree and undeniable world-class talent gave the league a level of skill that few imagined it could ever attract. To many, he was the best player to ever play in MLS. At least, until very recently.
Onward and Upward
Fast forward to 2023, and things are looking pretty good. There are currently 29 teams in MLS, with San Diego set to join in 2025 and officially triple the number of teams that kicked everything off in 1996. More than 20 of the teams in the league have their own soccer-specific stadiums, including the lovely Allianz Field right here in the Midway neighborhood.
This season is the first to be streamed on Apple TV+’s MLS Season Pass, a first-of-its kind, all-inclusive sports streaming platform that gives fans access to every single game, regardless of where they’re watching from. We’ve seen the single-game attendance record broken on a nearly yearly basis, with this year’s match between LA Galaxy and LAFC drawing a crowd of more than 82,000 at the Rose Bowl. There are more people watching MLS than ever before, and it’s never been easier to join the crowd.
Not only is interest from fans picking up, but player interest is rising as well. Talented players of all ages are flocking to the league for a variety of career goals. Young talents from across the globe see this league as a proving ground, somewhere they can showcase their skills and earn their way to Europe’s elite clubs. On the other hand, stars that have found success in Europe are beginning to see MLS as a new challenge, including new Loon and Finnish international Teemu Pukki.
But Pukki isn’t the biggest name to join the league this year, and that’s not a slight on the prolific Finn. After finally claiming the World Cup trophy with Argentina, one of the greatest to ever do it decided to follow LeBron James’ lead and take his talents to South Beach. That’s right, Lionel Messi is plying his trade with David Beckham-owned Inter Miami, and he brought a few friends with him. Former Barcelona stars Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets are donning pink as well, and the trio have already brought their new club its first trophy by winning Leagues Cup, a new tournament between MLS and the Mexican soccer league, Liga MX.
Big names are making headlines, young players are staking their claims and Major League Soccer is growing every season. America’s professional soccer scene is well and truly on the rise; this is the league of the future, and the future is now. Come on out to Allianz Field this season to join the Legion of Loons and enjoy all that MLS has to offer.