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MLS for noobs part 1: Introduction to Major League Soccer - history and structure

A brief look at the league for new fans

MLS: Preseason-San Jose Earthquakes vs Sacramento Republic Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s say you are a casual fan, maybe you watch LigaMX, Bundesliga, La Liga, EPL or one of the bigger leagues in Europe or maybe you went to an Atlanta United game or two in 2017 or caught the playoff game against the Columbus Crew and you want to follow the league more closely in 2018. The season starts the first week of March so we’ll go through some of the ins and outs of MLS between now and then.

MLS is entering its 22nd season in 2018, how did we get here? What is this league? What in the world is a Designated Player? Let’s briefly go through the history of the league and examine how we got to this point in its history.

Major League Soccer had its first season in 1996, the league was founded as a condition of the United States hosting the World Cup in 1994. Partly in exchange for being granted the tournament, the country was required to start a top flight professional league and two years later the league started play.

MLS began with 10 clubs who have gone through various re-brands over the years due to most of the original logos being born of the worst design trends of the mid 1990s. Of those clubs, the San Jose Earthquakes re-located to Houston in 2006 but were re-expanded into the league in 2008 and the Tampa Bay Mutiny, whose mascot was a mutant bat (MUTiny MUTant - it’s a pun, get it?), contracted after the 2001 season.

Aside from puns, the league also played hilarious jokes on soccer fans like having a shootout to resolve tie games and a clock that counted down rather than up in an effort to attract fans from more typical American sports. The result was that it alienated soccer fans and gave the league a reputation for not being a “real” soccer league that partly hangs over it to this day.

Deciding a game based on a new set of rules feels like a football game being decided by putting the ball on the 25 yard line and giving each team the change to score a touchdown.

Changing the rules for overtime just doesn’t seem to make sense and was changed to a golden goal period in 1999, along with adopting a traditional soccer clock, and ultimately eliminated in 2003 in favor of the match ending after 90 minutes.

Meanwhile, MLS added two new teams with the Miami Fusion in 1997 and the Chicago Fire in 1998. The league experienced challenges with low attendance, difficulty in finding television broadcasters, and teams forced to play in cavernous NFL stadiums complete with yard markers drawn on the field. In 1999, the league would hire Don Garber as a commissioner and he would begin the arduous process of building the league into the 23 team organization that it is now.

Under Garber, the first soccer specific stadium was built in Columbus in 1999. However, the league was forced to contract the struggling Miami Fusion along with Tampa Bay Mutiny after the 2001 season. Still, the new commissioner would create an ingenious way to make money for the league and keep it running. First he and the club owners created Soccer United Marketing to market the league and eventually SUM was chosen to market U.S. Soccer and sold the broadcast rights to the World Cup since 2002.

The second way to generate revenue was to charge expansion fees for new teams. As you may or may not know, professional soccer in the U.S. has no mechanism for promotion or relegation between divisions. Thus, after a static period between 2001-2005, Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA (yes, Chivas as in Chivas de Guadalajara) entered the league kicking off a new round of expansion. Between 2005 and 2017 MLS added 12 teams with no. 13 joining in 2018 to bring the total number of franchises to 23.

A distinction between the league and others around the world is that MLS teams aren’t clubs with boards and even supporters making decisions for the direction of the club. Rather each team is a franchise led by an owner or ownership group. Those groups in turn own the league and decide how to manage it, this is referred to as “single entity.” It helps explain some of the odd rules that govern the league. That’s a little simple, but it gives the basic sketches of how the league is structured without having to lose your mind over pulling on that thread too much.

The second expansion period was also a time of change for the league. MLS teams like the Kansas City Wizards re-branded getting a more traditional soccer team name. The clubs that entered the league in expansion have mostly followed that pattern or kept their identities from the leagues they joined from, like the Seattle Sounders and Montreal Impact.

This was also a period when the league adopted the “designated player” rule when David Beckham was brought to the league, joining the LA Galaxy in 2007 (with much, much drama). Eventually, every team would get three designated player slots that they could fill with players that didn’t count against the league salary cap.

This is a good place to stop. Next time we’ll take a look at the salary cap and some of the roster rules that teams in MLS must follow.