March 5, 2015 / 10:09 PM / 2 years ago

U.S. no longer a barren land as MLS turns 20

5 Min Read

(Reuters) - Hatched from a promise to FIFA to help secure the hosting of the 1994 World Cup, Major League Soccer is set to open its 20th season after finally establishing the sport at the professional level in North America.

For decades, people in the international game wondered how it was that with soccer having been spread around the world, the United States remained a barren land.

Several attempts to establish fully-fledged leagues were made, glimmered for a while and then vanished.

The American Soccer League ran from 1921-1933 with some success before disputes wrecked its progress.

The North American Soccer League (NASL), with clubs like the New York Cosmos and Tampa Bay Rowdies and international stars such as Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Johann Cruyff, caught the popular imagination before collapsing in debt in 1984.

When the United States Soccer Federation put together a bid to host the 1994 World Cup, their opponents highlighted the fact that the game's showpiece would be going to a country without even the basic league structure found elsewhere.

U.S. Soccer officials argued that a World Cup staged in the United States would give the game just the boost needed to help establish a league and promised to set up such a competition.

Eight years after that promise was made, and two years after a well-attended World Cup, Major League Soccer was born.

The league had 10 teams and featured the bulk of the 1994 U.S World Cup team, along with a sprinkling of foreign players such as Colombian Carlos Valderrama, Mexican goalkeeper Jorge Campos and Italy midfielder Roberto Donadoni.

One of the Americans who came home was defender Alexi Lalas, who had been playing in Italy's Serie A with Padova.

"I remember being in buses, hotel lobbies and bars leading up to the 1994 World Cup talking with guys about how great it would be to have a legitimate league of our own," Lalas told Reuters.

"So getting on the plane in Italy to return and be part of the first year of MLS was one of the proudest moments of my life."

Claims from some in the mainstream sports media that Americans would not turn out to watch soccer on a weekly basis proved unfounded -- the league averaged crowds of 17,406 in its first season with the LA Galaxy averaging over 29,000.

Not Smooth Sailing

It was not smooth sailing for the fledgling league, however. Having expanded to 12 teams, cash shortages led to MLS closing down its two Florida teams -- the Miami Fusion and the Tampa Bay Mutiny in 2002.

At the same time, MLS set up Soccer United Marketing (SUM), a company which generated vital revenue through commercial deals and also by promoting friendly games involving, among others, the hugely popular Mexican national team.

"There is no question that we wouldn't be where we are today if we had not established SUM," MLS commissioner Don Garber told Reuters. "It rolled up a number of soccer properties and raised the value of soccer commercially in the U.S."

The league was desperate to avoid the boom-and-bust of the NASL and adopted a closed 'single entity' structure with a salary cap. MLS owned the contracts of all players.

While costs were kept down, the league's low salaries which were as little as $10,000 a year early on were a deterrent to foreign players, ruling out the chance of a repeat of Pele's inspirational time in New York.

That changed in 2007 when LA Galaxy pulled off a major coup by signing England midfielder David Beckham on a $6 million a year deal.

The 'Designated Player' rule allowed for each club to sign a star player on a wage that would not be counted against the salary cap and the New York Red Bulls followed suit by acquiring former France and Arsenal forward Thierry Henry from Barcelona.

The league continued to add new clubs with Seattle Sounders, soon to be averaging over 40,000, heading the soccer boom in the Pacific Northwest along with the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps.

"We have always said we are trying to build a soccer nation in America," said Garber. "That soccer nation has arrived."

Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes

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