February 2011: The history of the US football league

It took ages for soccer, as it’s called in the United States of America, to establish itself in the country. The founding of the Major League Soccer (MLS) in December 1993 appears to have finally brought about a happy end. Especially, as the professional league for American and Canadian clubs has become highly popular in recent years.

The first attempts to make football attractive for the American public came in the 1960s. Two professional leagues were formed simultaneously in 1967. One was under the auspices of the United Soccer Association, a body recognised by the FIFA, and comprised of 12 teams made up solely of players from Europe. The second was the ten-team National Professional Soccer League. Both leagues merged in 1968 to form the North American Soccer League (NASL). For a while it also made the headlines in Europe.

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Three former superstars at Cosmos New York: Franz Beckenbauer (right), Georgio Chinaglia (centre) and Johan Cruyff (left). (Photo: GettyImages)

Superstars Pele and Franz Beckenbauer, who were both nearing the ends of their careers, were given contracts by the NASL club New York Cosmos. Gerd Müller moved to Florida to play for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Cosmos’ games in their heyday were watched by 40,000 fans but they were the exception rather than the rule. Crowds for matches between the other clubs averaged less than 15,000. The NASL was disbanded in 1984. It took until 6 April 1996 for a US professional league to start operations again.

Franz Beckenbauer shoots, Pele watches – in a game between Cosmos New York and Tampa Bay Rowdies on 25 May 1977. (Photo: GettyImages)

Lots of new cities and names

The MLS needed over two years to progress from its foundation to its first ever kick-off. In establishing the league, the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) fulfilled a condition made by the FIFA when awarding USA the FIFA World Cup 1994™. The MLS started in 1996 with ten clubs in two conferences. The western version contained Los Angeles Galaxy, Colorado Rapids and Dallas Burn, who were renamed FC Dallas in 2005. Kansas City Wiz became Kansas City Wizards one year later. They have gone by the name of Sporting Kansas City since the current season. San Jose Clash was the fifth team. In renaming itself the San Jose Earthquakes in 1999, it reminded people of the Earthquakes that played in the NASL between 1974 and 1984.

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The Eastern Conference on the other hand was contested by Columbus Crew, D.C. United, New England Revolution and Tampa Bay Mutiny. At the start of the MLS, the New York franchise was called New York/New Jersey Metropolitan. Two years later they were renamed the Metrostars. In 2006, the Red Bull Group took over the franchise and the club has been known as the New York Red Bull ever since.

Two years after its foundation, the league was expanded to 12 teams after Chicago Fire and Miami Fusion were added. In 2000, the MLS was restructured to include a Central Division. The new system only lasted a year as the Tampa and Miami franchises were dissolved after experiencing financial difficulties.

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Boxing superstar Muhammad Ali greets Pele on 1 October 1977 in the Giants Stadium New York. It marked Pele’s farewell at a match between his former club Santos and Cosmos. (Photo: GettyImages)

Kahn and Ballack stop the US boys

The Major Soccer League only really became successful after the turn of the century. A first big boost came with the FIFA World Cup 2002in Japan and South Korea when the US national team reached the last eight after wins against Portugal and Mexico. Although they put up a good performance in the quarterfinals against Germany, they were eliminated after losing 1-0. Goalkeeper Oliver Kahn and a Michael Ballack goal denied the US boys a place in the semis.

After the league had been stabilised, it was then time in 2005 to begin the second expansion phase by incorporating the Real Salt Lake City and C.D. Chivas USA clubs. Chivas is the only MLS club that has a sister club – in Guadalajara, Mexico.

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One year later US players moved to the European leagues. The San Jose Earthquakes left for Houston and now play under the name Houston Dynamo. The name and history of the Earthquakes however remained in San Jose to enable them to make a comeback. And then in 2008, the Earthquakes returned successfully after a two year absence under the logo of the old team.

In Houston, the club name Dynamo was a compromise. Initially an internet vote decided upon “Houston 1836”. The year refers to the founding year of the city of Houston but the choice was controversial. Many inhabitants with Mexican ancestry boycotted the new team as 1836 was the year of the Texan War of Independence. The name was dropped on 6 March 2006 and it was decided to call the team Houston Dynamo in recognition of the electronic industry. In 2006 Toronto FC became the first club from Canada to play in the MLS.

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Gerd Müller seen here in a Fort Lauderdale Strikers shirt on 1 January 1980. (Photo: GettyImages)

In 2007 the Super League, whereby four US teams play against four Mexican sides, was formed parallel to the MLS. The Seattle Sounders (2009) and Philadelphia Union (2010) were added to the MLS so that it had 16 members. At the beginning of the current season the number was increased again to 18 with the addition of the Vancouver Whitecaps and Portland Timbers. In future, the figure will be upped to 20 with a franchise from Montreal (2012) and a currently unnamed franchise (2013). These days football has become firmly established within the America sports scene. It is already become highly important in school and leisure sport – especially for girls.