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A Dream Deferred: Why MLS in Florida Failed Before

In 2001 MLS pulled the plug on top level professional soccer in Florida when it contracted the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion. Now the league is ready to recommit to Florida and make Orlando part of its Southern strategy to reestablish the league in the region. What went wrong the first time and what can we learn from it?

24 Jun 2000: Pablo Mastroeni #25 of the Miami Fusion and Mamadou Diallo #9 of the Tampa Bay Mutiny jump for the ball during the game at a very empty Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
24 Jun 2000: Pablo Mastroeni #25 of the Miami Fusion and Mamadou Diallo #9 of the Tampa Bay Mutiny jump for the ball during the game at a very empty Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

During the run up to Orlando City's invitation to join MLS, much was made about the earlier teams from Florida in the league.

The Tampa Bay Mutiny, one of the ten original clubs, and the Miami Fusion, who joined two years later in 1998, both represented the state in MLS long before Orlando City was a glimmer in the eye of Phil Rawlins. Mentions of a return to Florida by MLS will undoubtedly dominate national broadcasts to the point you could probably create a drinking game around it.

Both clubs closed their doors in 2001 with an MLS contraction that left the Southeastern part of the United States a professional soccer wasteland -- at least at the very top levels. The success of Orlando City as a lower league club has allowed MLS the opportunity to return to the region, while making Orlando the cornerstone franchise for a Southern strategy. Atlanta will welcome a club to its city in 2017 and Miami, theoretically, will be adding a David Beckham-led venture at some undecided point in the future.

MLS leadership has made sure that things in Florida go right this time. Orlando City's acceptance into the league was highly scrutinized in terms of attendance, the right stadium situation, and its ownership group. Miami's challenges also point to this level of scrutiny. Nothing but the right stadium in South Florida will work and MLS isn't budging.

So what went wrong the first time?

The late 1990s were a different time in American soccer. MLS 1.0, before its later reboot, was geared toward the general sports fan. Games ended in wacky shootouts and clocks counted down instead of up, in an attempt to sell the game in the United States.

Team names mirrored other U.S. teams, with the two best examples being the Dallas Burn and Kansas City Wizards. When MLS rebooted in the early 2000s, these teams transformed into FC Dallas and Sporting Kansas City -- names that would resonate less with the general sports fan and more with an emerging American soccer fan with a more sophisticated knowledge of the beautiful game.

Games were allowed to end in a draw and the traditional 90-minute clock counting up to full time was reestablished. Supporter culture also began to take a widespread hold in the early 2000s. Arguably, an MLS game these days has a similar feel to a game in other parts of the world and is no longer "Americanized," to the benefit of all.

Here's a quick look at the history of Florida's two previous MLS teams:

Tampa Bay Mutiny (1996-2001)

Best Season: In the league's first season, the Mutiny came out of the gates on fire, winning the Supporters' Shield and pushing through the playoffs all the way to the conference finals. There they lost to eventual champions, D.C. United. The team made the playoffs in 1997, 1999, and 2000.

Notable Players: Carlos Valderrama and his amazing hair were the league MVPs in 1996, while Roy Lassiter won the league's Golden Boot that year. Both players also appeared in the MLS All-Star Game that year with Valderrama winning the game's MVP award. U.S national team stalwart Frankie Hejduk also turned out for the club. Mamadou Diallo won the league's Golden Boot in 2000.

Why the Team Failed: On-field success never translated to the ticket sales needed to keep the team going. Their best season saw them average 13,106 fans in 1999, and their worst was in 2000, when they managed only a little over 9,000 per game through the gates.

The team was a victim of the American cavernous football stadium curse that still haunts New England Revolution and D.C. United, and the Mutiny had an unprofitable contract with Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. A good ownership group was never put in place, and local ownership was not able to be found when the club was put up for sale. The combination of these factors gave MLS the impetus to shut the team's doors in 2001.

Fun Fact: While the team nickname followed the city's pirate legacy, its Nike designed logo featured a bat-like creature. Evidently the bat was meant to be a futuristic mutant being. Obviously, a staff artist at Nike did not consult a dictionary before getting down to drawing. To the artist's credit, the bat does look quite mutant-y. Some consider the logo to be one of the worst soccer badges in history.

Fusion- Mutiny

Miami Fusion (1998-2001)

Best Season: Ironically, the Fusion's final year in MLS would be its most prolific. 2001 saw them winning the league's Supporters' Shield and the Eastern Conference. They eventually lost to the San Jose Earthquakes in the semifinals.

Notable Players: Older versions of Valderrama and Lassiter. Other names that will resonate with MLS and U.S. Soccer fans include Nick Rimando, Eric Wynalda, Preki, Pablo Mastroeni, and a young Kyle Beckerman.

Why the Team Failed: In many ways the Fusion had the carpet pulled out from under them right as they were gaining their stride. As MLS owned most of the teams in the league at that point in time, losses were piling up for the league to the tune of $200 million a year. The club wasn't making money and, in a business decision, MLS decided to try and stop the bleeding.

The Fusion never had significant attendance totals. Their best year was the final season, with more than 11,000 per game filling suburban Lockhart Stadium in Ft. Lauderdale. It's hard to imagine now that a club that just won the Supporters' Shield and had its best attendance would be contracted, but that's exactly what happened. Notably, the club had the lowest revenues in the league from corporate sponsors, adding to their demise.

Fun Fact: Rumor has it that David Beckham is considering reviving the Fusion name and brand for his new MLS club in Miami. This isn't unheard of, as the San Jose Earthquakes moved to Houston and a new team in San Jose assumed the old name.

MLS in the late 1990s was a different league. One could easily argue the contraction of the two Florida teams in the end helped to preserve the financially struggling league. Personally, I'm not sure the Mutiny were viable in the long run, but the Fusion seemed to be heading in the right direction.

This might have been a consideration in the positional of MLS to South Florida. Orlando City to this point has done everything the right way and is poised to be a success. Hot summers and rainy afternoons might become a challenge for the club's attendances in the inaugural season in the Citrus Bowl, but the long term stadium now under construction has roofing that should help with this.

Here's to a new era for MLS in Florida, with all of its lessons from the past.

Correction made changing San Jose Clash to San Jose Earthquakes