Twenty years ago yesterday, the MLS kicked off their inaugural game at Spartan Stadium in San Jose, California between DC United and the San Jose Clash. Since the MLS began, it has been able to improve the quality of play of the U.S. Soccer Men’s National Team, which has helped them get past the group stage of the last two World Cups. Here are four reasons the MLS has been crucial to the popularity of Soccer in America:
- It brought financial stability to soccer in America.
The MLS began in the shadow of the NASL, who in the 1970s and 1980s made soccer relevant in the U.S. for the first time. Bringing Pele, the best soccer player ever, to the New York Cosmos in 1975 gave instant credibility to the league. Later, with the addition of other world-class stars, such as Johan Cryuff, Franz Beckenbaur and George Best, the league was able to gain more validity.
The ultimate downfall of the league was its over-expansion, moving from nine teams in 1973 to 24 in 1978. After Pele’s retirement in 1977, the attendance and finances of the league dropped, causing it to dissolve in 1985.
The MLS has given itself financial stability by bringing in top US players and getting a national television deal with Fox, ESPN, and Univision, which gives them the ability to bring in more quality players from around the world. This is giving the MLS a long-term plan to be profitable, which differs from the NASL where most of the teams were losing money during the most successful period for the league.
- It puts US National Team players in front of US fans.
Twelve players from the recent USMNT World Cup qualifying matches against Guatemala are currently playing in the MLS, with six others previously playing in the league. This gives the not so grateful Jurgen Klinsman a solid base from which to select players for the World Cup and other international tournaments that have large followings across the world. US national team stars Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley all have come back to the MLS after stints in Europe with goalkeeper Tim Howard coming back in May. These players are generating more interest in the league, which inspires the younger generation in America to play soccer.
- It brought world class players to the US.
David Beckham is the highest profile player to be associated with the MLS. A superstar on and off the field, Beckham signed for the LA Galaxy in 2007 after starring for two of the best clubs in the world, Manchester United and Real Madrid. Other superstars to play in the MLS are Carlos Valderrama and Thierry Henry.
Valderrama won the MVP in the MLS’ inaugural season in 1996 inaugural with the Tampa Bay Mutiny and was the first world-class player to come to the MLS. He was a star for Columbia’s National Team during the late 1980s and 1990s, where he won two South American Player of the year awards and played in three World Cups.
Henry starred for the French National Team, winning a World Cup in 1998 and finished second in 2006 on his way to becoming his country’s top goal scorer. He was the top goal scorer for Arsenal FC and a Champions League winner with Barcelona, Henry signed with the New York Red Bulls in 2010 winning two Eastern Conference Titles, in 2010 and 2013, and a Supporter’s Shield in 2013.
- Landon Donovan
No article about the importance of the MLS can be complete without mentioning Landon Donovan. He is the best player ever in the MLS and was so influential to the league that the MVP award is named after him. Playing for the San Jose Earthquakes from 2001 to 2004, he showed he was as an American star, scoring 32 goals and winning the 2001 and 2003 MLS Cups. During the 2003 MLS CUP he won Man of the Match by scoring two goals. He Moved to the LA galaxy in 2005, where he cemented his place as the best MLS player ever by scoring 112 goals, winning four MLS cups, two Supporters’ Shields and a U.S. Open Cup.
Internationally, Donovan starred for the U.S. National Team making 157 appearances and scoring 57 goals in route to becoming the top U.S. goal scorer of all time. Donovan won four Gold Cups and played in three World Cups and was just left off the roster for what would have been his fourth in 2014. His list of USMNT awards is impressive, winning the U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year four times and top men’s player seven times.
There is no underestimating the influence of Donovan on the MLS and vice versa. To many Landon Donovan is U.S. soccer and will forever be known as the greatest player of the 2000s. As the only player who was able to draw a crowd for the six seasons before the arrival of Beckham, Donovan was the man for the MLS.
Because of these four reasons the MLS has proved it is here to stay and lead the charge for the U.S. Men’s National Team to win a World Cup.