I remember exactly where I was for the very first kick of Major League Soccer: at an oddly configured but otherwise terrific Irish pub with a bunch of soccer nerds just like myself, excited for the match but absolutely giddy with anxious delight about what was unfolding more broadly.
I doubt that anybody associated with Major League Soccer back then – I was “associated,” I suppose, as a beat writer at a newspaper, pretty stoked to have a weighty soccer league to cover – could stop themselves from dreaming a little bit. We all had some inkling that MLS could possibly … maybe … hopefully … turn into something substantial. Something with some resonance and relevance, some cultural heft at home and enough on-field quality to make the world take notice.
But nobody could say exactly what that would look like. Some dreams soared high; some just floated gently aloft. But safe to say, nobody quite knew what the league might evolve into 5, 10 … 20 years down the road. Frankly, everyone wondered in their quiet moments if the league wouldn’t be another marker in the graveyard of failed soccer leagues.
Now, we know this:
Major League Soccer, as the top professional soccer league in the United States and Canada, is in a great place. Could it be bigger? Yes. Could it do some things better? Of course. Would we chest bump a little more if TV ratings improved at a faster clip or if underperforming markets would catch up? You bet.
But make no mistake, league progress has been remarkable, a success story that leans toward “stunning.” And as this country’s most visible soccer property (along with the United States men’s national team), success of MLS is essential to the perception of soccer’s ongoing progress and success.
On the occasion of the league’s landmark 20th MLS Cup final this Sunday, it’s a good time to take stock in it, an ideal time to look back and look around.
The growth curve certainly isn’t what we thought as Eric Wynalda curled in that initial MLS goal back in 1996. (A few beers in, I still remember the moment well.) We might have anticipated an initial burst, a big early curve of success and then a leveling off. But things hardly went that way. Growth was frustratingly slow in the early years. In fact, things went backward as contraction happened in 2001, dropping MLS from 12 to 10 teams (and coming perilously close to shutting doors altogether). By then, three owners were carrying the league. More than carrying, in fact, they had to double down on the investment. Phil Anschutz, Lamar Hunt and the Kraft family all had to pony up about $70 million to fund the league and the bigger leap of faith: investment in SUM, the marketing arm that subsequently secured some vital international TV rights.