By Simon Pyne
Major League Soccer (MLS) is the name the United States has given to their most recent incarnation of the beautiful game, which we in Great Britain know as football, and whilst we may mock the USA for calling our national sport by another moniker, the truth is we originally instigated the name they now adopt.
The word “Soccer” originated from the late nineteenth century public schools who abbreviated “Association Football” into “Assoccer”, (the same way they abbreviated rugby into “rugger”). This eventually transformed into “soccer” and was used mostly by the upper classes during this era. The sport gradually transgressed to the lower classes who used the term “Football” to describe the game we know and cherish so much today.
Soccer was surprisingly introduced to the USA in the 1850’s when British and Europeans migrated to America. The original English rules of the sport were used to play the game during this period.
The sport took a keen hold in the late 1800’s, there were numerous soccer associations within the US and popularity was increasing steadily. Circumstances conspired against the sport however, with the combination of the warring football associations involved in a power struggle, and then the impact of the great depression of 1930. Soccer fell away as survival became a priority for many.
The sport started its resurgence in the late 1960’s, with the United Soccer Association and the National Professional Soccer League coming onto the scene in 1967. The timing of this has been largely attributed to England winning the World Cup, with the USA aspiring to rejoin the sport following the success, as well as the admiration achieved across the pond through this triumph.
Perhaps, after learning from the earlier mistakes of rival associations, it was no surprise the two associations merged to form the North American Soccer League (NASL).
The NASL began in 1968,, consisting of 17 teams. There were no other teams or leagues at the same level as these 17 teams, so promotion and relegation was not possible. There were also not enough homegrown players to fill these teams, so the arrival of foreign players was an absolute necessity. This brought high salaries into a developing sport with small attendances and low gate receipts, and the prospect of failure was imminent if drastic measures were not taken.
In their infinite wisdom, those amongst the NASL changed the rules to try and increase popularity amongst Americans. These changes included sudden death overtime, bonus points systems and the shootout tie breaker to ensure no game finished as a draw.
This is probably the main reason the footballing world, as we know it, couldn’t take the USA as a serious footballing nation. The rules made a mockery of the sport and appeared to be in place solely to up the entertainment value.
To aid the popularity, numerous foreign stars were imported. The biggest name of course was Pelé and lets face it, there aren’t many bigger names than that! He played for the all-powerful New York Cosmos from 1975-1977, picking up a huge $1.4m salary per year for his efforts. The arrival of these talented foreign imports raised the stakes, attendances rose to 70,000 on several occasions and the NASL looked like it had made the grade. The league expanded to 24 teams and all was looking rosy for the sport. All good things come to an end however, and the retirement of the leagues brightest star, Pelé, was the start of the NASL decline. Media interest waned, TV deals weren’t renewed and there were no new stars of the same calibre able to regain the dizzy heights of the Pelé era.
Unfortunately this meant the franchised teams forming the league became unprofitable and the late introduction of a salary cap, to try and stave off the inevitable, did not succeed.
At the end of 1984 the NASL finally succumbed. By this time it had lost most of its franchises and interest was a small fraction of the heady Pelé times.
The attempt made by the NASL can’t be seen as a total failure however. In 1967 it was recorded there were 100,000 people playing soccer in the US and by the end of the NASL era that figure had risen to over 4 million.
The soccer matches of the USA 1984 summer Olympics benefited from this remaining popularity, and it is largely attested that due to the high attendances of the Olympic soccer matches, FIFA awarded the 1994 World Cup to the US.
Interest in soccer gained momentum once more in the build up to the World Cup. As part of the deal to host the greatest competition in football the USA had agreed to form a professional league utilising the Football Association rules used by the rest of the world.
The 1994 World Cup was a huge success and it drew record audiences within the US. This gave the momentum for MLS to be formed in 1996, and the opportunity to develop homegrown players for the future. The success of the MLS can be measured in a relatively short space of time as the United States national team reached the quarter-final stage of the 2002 World Cup. This was a massive achievement for such a young association and is possibly an insight into the bright future of US soccer.
Major League Soccer followed the same route as the NASL; in so much as in the early stages, they relied on signing talented foreign players at the end of their careers. This is changing rapidly now, with many big names being enticed by the MLS. The league is adding three more teams over the next few seasons and with David Beckham’s Miami team hopefully being another new addition, interest within the UK is swiftly growing.
Hopefully this has given an insight into the US involvement in our fabled sport and perhaps surprised a few people who thought it was a relatively new game to our American cousins.
With attendances growing and TV networks throwing money at the clubs, the signs are there for all to see. How much has our league improved since Sky became involved? Many MLS teams are building huge new stadiums to keep up with the demand, players from all over the world are arriving in their droves and the TV coverage is now global, showing at peak times on major networks. Major League Soccer is currently the fastest growing sport in the World and is not showing any signs of slowing down.
The future of MLS is looking bright and one thing is for certain, with a population of 314 million it doesn’t take a genius to work out how big the sport can become if the Americans take it to heart.
MLS is on its way, are we ready for it? Damn straight we are, are you?