In many ways, the story of Major League Soccer begins with the demise of America's first big-time league, the North American Soccer League, better known as NASL. While much has been glamorized about NASL, from the great players who played in the league, to the 70,000-plus crowds brought in by teams like the New York Cosmos, the league itself was always a modest success -- never averaging more than 14,440 fans per game in a season.
The league existed from 1967 to 1985 and actively expanded to 24 teams by 1980. This rapid expansion, matched with large salaries and poorly run teams, saw the league consistently contract, until it eventually was no more by 1985.
Fast forward to 1988 and the announcement that the United States would host the 1994 World Cup. Part of U.S. Soccer's deal with FIFA to host the tournament was that the nation would establish a Division 1 league. Major League Soccer was that league.
MLS began play in 1996 with a field of only 10 teams. Among these initial teams was, of course, the Tampa Bay Mutiny, with another Florida team following in 1998, the Miami Fusion. This initial league sought to win over the American sports fan. This goal meant the league operated a differently from most of the world's soccer leagues.
Instead of the traditional counting up clock, MLS used a countdown clock. Much as NASL had done before them, they had a shootout to resolve tie games. Also, the season went from spring to fall, in an effort to not compete with NFL, college football, NBA and NHL games.
These "Americanized" rules failed to win over Joe Sportfan, but did alienate the country's established soccer fans. With the exception of the league start date, all of these Americanized rules were dropped by 1999.
Another significant difference between MLS and most sports leagues was the single-entity structure. In part because of the financial failures of NASL, this system sees the league operating as one unit, with both teams and players owned by the league, not individual teams.
Team owners then operate as "investor-operators," who hold shares in the league as a whole. This has led to numerous oddities like the myriad of drafts and the always mysterious allocation system.
Early stars in the legaue included U.S. National Team players like Alexi Lalas and Eric Wynalda, and international stars like Carlos Valderrama of Colombia. The 1996 season saw a season average of 17,406 in attendance, with the highest average belonging to the LA Galaxy, at 28,916.
The first Supporters Shield was won by the Tampa Bay Mutiny, while D.C. United won the first MLS Cup, 2-3 in extra time, vs. the Galaxy on a wet and cold October day in Foxboro, MA. The players of the week winners included future stars such as Brad Friedel (Columbus Crew), and Brian McBride (Columbus Crew), and current New York City FC manager Jason Kreis (Dallas Burn) was a player of the month.
Of the 10 original clubs in MLS, the LA Galaxy, New England Revolution, Columbus Crew, D.C. United and Colorado Rapids all remain. The Dallas Burn and Kansas City Wiz both still exist, but under more traditional soccer monikers -- FC Dallas and Sporting K.C. The NY/NJ Metrostars later became simply New York Red Bulls. The San Jose Clash changed names to the Earthquakes and later moved to become the Houston Dynamo (with another club becoming the Earthquakes in San Jose in 2006). Of the initial 10 teams, only the Tampa Bay Mutiny no longer exist.
Much has been made of MLS being a young league, but it is interesting to note that it was only formed four years after the modern English Premiere League. As MLS and its player union sit down this week in an effort to avoid a strike and negotiate how the league compensates players, many of the fundamentals the league was founded on will be debated and perhaps done away with. These growing pains and evolutionary steps are necessary to continue to grow the league and U.S. soccer.
Let's just hope they can figure it out without a strike.