Late, experimental and under-funded: MLS’s 28-month odyssey from concept to kick-off
By Matthew Gourlie
On December 17, 1993, World Cup USA 94 chairman and CEO/US Soccer president Alan I. Rothenberg announced the formation of Major League Soccer and unveiled the league’s logo.
The creation of a Division 1 league in the United States was a stipulation from FIFA as part of the U.S.’s successful bid for the World Cup. FIFA wanted the league to debut before the World Cup took place. Instead, two days before the World Cup draw, the league announced it would launch on April 9, 1995 with 12 teams.
In the end, MLS launched a year late, two teams short of its target and with a revamped logo.
The Canadian Premier League has vowed to learn the lessons of the past as they seek to create a nationwide soccer league.
CPL supporters would be well-advised to do the same.
The first dozen years of MLS (before-Toronto FC attracted the attention of many in Canada to the league) was full of mis-steps and setbacks before finding stability, and now, a level of success. If the early years of the league was full of trial and error, the creation of the league was something else entirely.
As Canadian soccer diehards follow the rumours and progress of the Canadian Premier League’s creation it is illuminating to also review the incubation of MLS before it saw the light of day.
With that in mind, here’s a look back at the ups and downs over the 28 months between that launch press conference and Eric Wynalda’s inaugural goal for the San Jose Clash on April 6, 1996.
“Honestly, I never had any intention of creating a pro league. I assumed if we had a successful World Cup and the excitement was clear, some entrepreneurs would say, ‘Time to have a pro soccer league again.’ But no one was stepping forward. Then, at the time of the World Cup draw, in December 1993, FIFA told us, ‘You really gotta get going,’” recalled Rotherberg in Sports Illustrated’s excellent oral history of MLS.
After Rotherberg’s announcement, interest in joining the new league was strong.
The USSF hosted the “Major League Soccer Bidders Conference” in Los Angeles from January 22-24, 1994. Representatives from 29 cities attended to learn more about the process to become one of the initial 12 MLS franchises.
The prospective cities began the process of demonstrating their interest and commitment to MLS by selling season ticket deposits and providing interim as well as long-term stadium options to the league.
The powers that be at MLS headquarters weren’t confident that the traditional form of soccer would sell in America.
In March of 1994, with the co-operation of the United States Soccer Federation and the 69 teams in the United States Interregional Soccer League (USISL, the pre-cursor to the USL), MLS explored a series of rule changes that included: goal size, the offside rule, throw-ins and game length. USISL teams received up to three bonus points per goal scored. In two USISL divisions, teams received a one-point “corner kick bonus.” The league-leading Minnesota Thunder played 18 matches and finished the regular season with 170 points.
“In one USISL division, we had bigger goals. In another division, we had a different set of rules. Phil Woosnam—the earlier commissioner of the NASL, former Welsh international, and head coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team—oversaw that experiment. We kept statistics and observed games in all eight divisions to see what we might want to try to pitch for MLS,” recalled current USSF president and original MLS deputy commissioner Sunil Gulati in Complex’s oral history of MLS’ first season.
The league would eventually open with a breakaway shootout (similar to the original NASL) at the end of draws and time was kept on the scoreboard with a clock that counted down.
While the USISL was trying to re-invent the game, the world’s focus shifted to USA 94. There, fans received season ticket forms that listed 43 cities as potential MLS communities that were part of the season-ticket deposit drive.
Deposits were $75 and the league was looking at 10,000 pledges as the benchmark for support.
Columbus — with a great assist from the Ohio-based Kroger grocery chain, the largest in America — was the only community to hit the 10,000 mark. Tampa, which would also be one of the inaugural franchises, only had “a few hundred” deposits.
In addition to season ticket drive, other factors were support from the local business community, a concrete plan for a 20,000-30,000-seat stadium and a lease agreement to play on a grass field of FIFA regulation width and length. The MetroStars would play their first five seasons on AstroTurf and Wynalda’s first goal in league history would come in San Jose’s anorexic Spartan Stadium and its 63-yard wide pitch (seven yards short of the FIFA minimum).
On March 18, 1994 MLS announced that they had 22 formal bids for franchises. The next following day, USA Today reported that there had been 23 bids and listed the cities as: Atlanta, Boston, Columbus, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Louisville, New Jersey, New York, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Raleigh-Durham, Sacramento, San Jose, Seattle, St. Louis, Tampa, Tulsa, and Washington, D.C.
On June 15, 1994 — two days before the World Cup opened and Diana Ross missed the easiest sitter in soccer history — the MLS unveiled its first seven teams: Boston, Columbus, Long Island, Los Angeles, New Jersey, San Jose and Washington, DC.
Long Island, N.Y. would be replaced before ever playing a match.
The charter investors and team operators for the original seven franchises were Metromedia (headed up by John Kluge and Stuart Subotnick), Lamar Hunt and his son Clark Hunt, LA Soccer Partners (Marc Rapaport) and API Soccer (headed By Kevin Payne). Of that group, only FC Dallas owner Clark Hunt currently owns a team.
Rothenberg was hoping to raise $100 million from investors to launch the league with 12 teams, but felt that they could launch with as little as $50 million in financing under their single-entity model. Each of the initial investors ponied up $5M, meaning the league needed a minimum of 10 teams to get to the $50 million threshold to launch.
Finding cities that were interested in having a soccer franchise wasn’t hard. Finding people to foot the bill was proving prohibitively difficult.
The MLS had reportedly narrowed the list of cities vying for the final five franchises to Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Sacramento, Seattle, Tampa and Tulsa.
An announcement on the final five teams had been expected shortly after the World Cup concluded.
Later that summer, the Tulsa World reported that messages left at the office of MLS chief operating officer Bill Sage had gone unanswered. A league spokeswoman said the announcement on the final five teams would come “sometime in August.”
August came and went. As did September.
In the first week of October, the American Professional Soccer League — home to the Montreal Impact, Toronto Rockets and Vancouver 86ers, in addition to Colorado, Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles and Seattle — rejected overtures from MLS to come on board.
“We’re still opposed to the single-entity concept,” APSL commissioner Richard Groff told the Associated Press at the time. “Our owners prefer to own their teams, players, develop their teams in their market… be 100 per cent responsible for their club.”
Six days later, MLS announced their launch would be pushed back a year to the spring of 1996.
“The league was trying desperately to round up a group of owners. Other than Stuart Subotnick and John Kluge [who would own the MetroStars], the Krafts and my dad (Lamar Hunt), they were really having a hard time getting others to commit,” Clark Hunt recalled.
On June 6, 1995, nearly a year after the “original seven” franchises were named, the MLS announced that Dallas, Denver and Kansas City had been awarded franchises and the league would launch with 10 teams. Tampa Bay would also replace Long Island.
Crucially, Denver businessman Philip Anschutz and the Kraft family from Boston (led by Bob Kraft) become investors. Without Anschultz’ involvement, it’s a fair assumption that MLS wouldn’t have survived.
Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) would go on to own all or part of seven different teams at various times. AEG currently owns the LA Galaxy.
In 2002, with the MLS down to 10 teams after contracting Miami and Tampa, AEG owned five teams: LA, Chicago, Colorado, DC United and the MetroStars to help single-handedly keep the league afloat.
The league currently has 23 different investor-operators for its 23 clubs.