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The Birth of Major League Soccer

1996 – The Birth of Major League Soccer

When FIFA awarded the United States the 1994 World Cup, part of the deal was to develop a new professional soccer league in the United States. After the NASL had folded in 1983, several groups tried to kick-start soccer leagues. Almost all either went belly-up or floundered along losing money while offering free tickets to anyone who breathed.

With the huge commercial success of the 1994 World Cup, there was a new interest in developing a soccer league. Youth soccer had skyrocketed in the 1970’s and 1980’s and by 1996, there were a large number of adults who appreciated the sport.

This interest stems with the reality that, after the collapse of the NASL, there was no established Level 1 professional soccer structure in the country. To keep costs down and a maintain a sense of stability, a small group of wealthy owners helped fill the void with a business model that treated each of the league’s teams as part of one entity. In direct contrast to almost all soccer leagues around the world, each teams were owned by the league and player were allocated to teams by the league. The MLS single-entity structure helped the league grow at a slow and steady pace over the past two decades, blossoming from a 10-team operation to a 30-team league in by 2022.

Would the League Survive?

Along the way, there was definitely concerns that the league would not survive. In 2001, after a very poor World Cup showing by the men’s team in 1998, and dropping attendance levels, the league was in talks with bankruptcy lawyers to fold the league. One of the owners of a number of teams, Lamar Hunt, talked the others into staying on board a bit longer, which gave the owners more time to cut costs, and grow on the strength of the 2002 World Cup success, some new soccer specific stadiums, and eventually the arrival of David Beckham, the league’s first “designated player”.

Back in 1996, as somebody who grew up with no high-level US soccer league to support, the idea of Major League Soccer was everything to me. I had followed a few local soccer teams that had folded, such as the LA Heat, and the LA Salsa in the defunct American Professional Soccer League (APSL). At one point, I even got a press badge and was able to a bit of reporting for some US Olympic qualifying for a local newspaper called the Soccer Gazette.

But overall, like most Americans, I grew up with the NFL, the NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball, and never thought about how a closed league was run. The leagues just existed and seemed very successful, although for some reason, I had always felt sorry for, and was curious about, minor league baseball teams. On the other hand, going to Kings playoff games when Wayne Gretzky played were some of the most entertaining sporting events I have ever been to. Hockey was soccer on ice. At Dodger games, I was the one explaining all the plays and the intricacies of baseball to friends from England when most of the crowd was eating hot dogs, making small talk, and paying little attention to the game.

In regards to promotion and relegation, I understood the concept, especially being a Leeds United fan, and did sometimes wonder why soccer teams in the US failed so often, but not in England or other countries. But due to the little coverage of European leagues in the US, I didn’t pay attention and didn’t understand how it all worked, and how it was a completely different business model. I didn’t really care. I just wanted to see a major soccer league in my country.

A few weeks before MLS’ opening day, I got to go on a tour of the Rose Bowl and remember telling the first Galaxy president Danny Villanueva that the signing of Mexican mega-star Jorge Campos was the best possible signing the Galaxy could do for Los Angeles. He just smiled and mentioned American star Cobi Jones, Mauricio Cienfuegos from El Salvador, and Eduardo Hurtado from Ecuador. These last two I had never heard of but all three would soon have a huge impact on Major League soccer.

MLS’ Very First Opening Day Clash in San Jose

The events leading up to Major League Soccer’s inaugural game on April 6 between the San Jose Clash and DC United must have been chaotic behind the scenes with so many unknowns. Would fans show up to the games? Were the player ready? Would anybody score?

Read about the pressures to this one game on the future of American soccer.

I was fully focused on the LA Galaxy’s home opener. I was telling everyone I knew about the game and how exciting the league was going to be. I befriended a very quirky LA Galaxy season ticket salesman. Somehow I talked him into getting me tickets to the MLS inaugural tickets in San Jose a week before the Galaxy’s home opener. I was so excited on the plane trip to San Jose and the pre-game festivals at the stadium, but became very nervous when the sloppy game plodded along to a 0-0 score late in the game. Fortunately, American national team star Eric Wynalda scored in dramatic style in the 87th minute to save the league from an embarrassing scoreless tie, the one thing Americans hate the most about soccer.

MLS Celebrities

The only other events I recall that historic weekend revolved around two national team stars. Each of the MLS teams in the league sent a player to the inaugural game to represent their team and were they were staying at the hotel I was staying at. I did not see any of them until the day I was heading to the front desk to checkout. I glanced down one hallway and noticed one of the most recognizable players of all time, Carlos Valderrama from Colombia, who was there representing the Tampa Bay Mutiny team.

Valderama was just sitting in a chair all by himself, looking straight ahead with both hands on the arm rests. He looked like a king. I couldn’t pass this up, I grabbed a cocktail napkin and a pen, went over to say hi and see if I could get an autograph. I slowly walked over and quietly said, “Hello Mr. Valderamma”. He didn’t flinch, and kept looking directly forward. I wasn’t sure if he was ignoring yet annoying fan, completely stoned, didn’t hear me, or didn’t understand me. I took a small step closer, put out the napkin and pen, and asked for his autograph. After 10 seconds of no response, he very slowly moved his head towards me, slowly grabbed the pen, signed the napkin, gave me the pen and napkin back and moved his head back to the position he in 30 seconds earlier, looking straight into the distance. All in slow motion. Despite not a word being said, I could tell we had a deep connection. So I said thank you and checked out of the hotel.

The other run-in was with a player closer to home who I have bumped into numerous times over the years. The night before the inaugural game, I accompanied the ticket sales group I was hanging out with to a local club. We were just chit-chatting when all of a sudden, we spotted Cobi Jones, the LA Galaxy team rep, with his buddies. I told my guys I was going to buy Cobi a tequila shot. So I went over and when I got close, I noticed he was on crutches. I freaked out knowing the LA Galaxy opener was next week. I didn’t ask about his crutches but offered him the shot and thanked him for all he was doing for America soccer. He smiled, said thanks but said he couldn’t take the drink as he was in training. I said of course and walked off, but I swear I saw him rolling his eyes to his buddies as I walked away. The sales guys and I had a good laugh too! Later, I was told that he brought the crutches sometimes so crazy 30-year old fan-boys would leave him alone.

In the later years, I ran into Cobi numerous times at Billiard place called Q’s where many Galaxy players went to after their game. Later I found out that Cobi was the godfather to one of the soccer players I coached, so I saw him at a number of team events. One year, he awarded a trophy to my son for one of the indoor tournaments. I even got the nerve to ask him about Promotion and Relegation. He side-stepped the question. Lol…he still has no idea who I am.

The Opening Day for the a Galaxy ended up being one of the anxious and best nights of my life. You’ll see why!,