While I am pleased for Philadelphia and particularly for the Sons of Ben that the league has chosen to add a 16th team in 2010, I have serious concerns about the rapid expansion of the league and the seeming desire to make a different set of rules for each potential expansion city. Philadelphia probably deserved a team, but did Seattle really deserve one? How about a return to San Jose so quickly when the public threshold set by Commissioner Garber was never met for the Earthquakes to resume play in MLS?
For years MLS shied away from any resemblance to the old NASL: in many cases to its own detriment and causing failure in some markets that had embraced the NASL. Now the MLS seems to be racing to replicate the NASL in some odd ways while continuing to shun the legacy of that league in others. The NASL was a renegade league. For many years the league openly defied FIFA and the USSF. At the time the United States National Team was a weak sister and generally could not get out of the first round of World Cup Qualifying. The NASL also had a strange set of rules, some that the MLS originally adopted. Remember the 35 yard line for offsides, the one on one shootout, and the clock stopping and counting down to zero? But the NASL had its bright spots. An incredible fan base in certain cities and thus the ability of those cities to embrace second and third division teams of the same name into the future. The league also spurred the growth in youth soccer nationally from which MLS and the US National Team has now long benefited. In addition, the league was able to penetrate the mainstream sports media in a fashion that MLS is still attempting to: sure Pele, Cryuff, Best and Marsh all helped, but so did the aggressiveness of certain teams and the understand of marketing by many of the clubs.
Take Tampa, Florida for instance. The Rowdies generally had the second highest average attendance in the NASL from 1975 thru 1984. (Behind the New York Cosmos). The Rowdies reared an entire generation of young people on the game to the point that when I would often travel to Tampa in the early 1990s, and try and talk about soccer in a crowd of sports fans I would not be met with the hostility I faced almost everywhere else in the country. In fact at that point the Rowdies name was still alive and well in the form of the A-League Rowdies and the Tampa Bay area had developed the nation’s second biggest youth soccer network, and an immense number of soccer specific retail stores that unlike many shops today did not specialize in selling Real Madrid or Manchester United jerseys, but soccer equipment and soccer related videos.
When MLS began in 1996, I was initially shocked by the cities selected. Los Angeles (The Aztecs) had flopped in the NASL while San Diego (The Soccers) had been super successful. Boston (like Philadelphia) had two teams fold, and one move to Jacksonville, FL. of all places (I went to a Jacksonville Tea Men game against my beloved Strikers at the Gator Bowl in 1982, and my chief memory of the game was shock that so few people could attend a professional sporting event), while Chicago had always been a staple of the dearly departed league but was passed over for Columbus of all places. Kansas City instead of St Louis seemed beyond bizarre to me. Fort Lauderdale, Seattle, Chicago and Houston had all been left out despite a thriving long term soccer fan base in those cities. (obviously now all four have had their stab at MLS, but none were awarded franchises in 1996 while Columbus and Kansas City were.) Truthfully beyond the obvious selections of New York, Dallas and Washington, only San Jose and Tampa Bay made perfect sense based on the support the NASL made there. But in both markets the league made a critical mistake. Rather than embrace the legacy and ready made fan base from the NASL they ran from it. Instead of naming the respective teams the Earthquakes and Rowdies, two very amateurish sounding names, the Clash and Mutiny were given with even more amateurish looking logos and uniforms.