Monday 14 March 2022

How As a Teenager I became Intrigued by Major League Soccer Without Realising It Was Almost Ready To Fold

I’ve wanted to write about American Soccer on this blog for a while as, after all, it has a rather interesting history. Well, by that I mean there are a few key periods and events which certainly fascinate. Despite this, I’ve never really found the right place to start. Some stories I’ve left alone as they have already been extensively covered elsewhere such as the NASL, whilst with other tales rarely voiced it has been a case of difficulties in research that has stopped me from telling the story I want. This even with the sadly now deceased David Wangerin’s excellent written history of American soccer to hand. There was also one event that I did not fancy covering due to the involvement of humiliation for my home country.

Even with my travel writing when in America I have drawn a blank. Whilst I‘ve visited the country several times now I’ve never managed to attend a game so have not been able to write any football based travel stuff for the excellent Football Weekends magazine that features me from time to time (I did see a basketball match in Phoenix the other year but alas no footy). 

Although I have so far been unable to write about any parts of it in detail, American soccer, as I have already said, does have a rather fascinating history. It started when the American Soccer League briefly captured the imagination in the late 1920s and early 30s, with a team called the Fall River Marksmen the stars of the show. Although it was never gonna compete with baseball in terms of popularity it did for a short while draw impressive crowds and attract a few decent players from the Football League here in England. Albeit it far too briefly, it certainly found a place of note in America's sporting landscape, perhaps helped by the fact that other sports such as American football and basketball had not yet gained the momentum that made them into the powerhouses they are today. 

After that brief flirtation with the sport the rest of us correctly call football, the domestic game in the US went into complete obscurity until the NASL took off in the 1970s, In the intervening years there was at the 1950 World Cup, however, a famous shock win for the men’s national team, or USMNT as they are known over there, when they defeated the might of England despite being huge underdogs. In the days before live matches on television, certainly not from overseas at least, it was a result that most back in the UK thought they’d misheard when it was announced on BBC radio. As a proud Englishman, however, I will quickly gloss over this event and move on. if anyone is interested, however, look up a man called Joe Gaetjens.

Next as mentioned came the NASL. Those in the States went mad for soccer in the 1970s when the brash, loud, very uncle Sam, North American Soccer League (NASL) took off with Brazillian legend Pele the star of the show and his New York Cosmos the talk of the town. Again that was all short-lived and the league folded in the early 80s.

America’s next big foray into the world of soccer came when they hosted the FIFA World Cup in 1994 and this was followed two years later by the formation of the country’s next big professional league in Major League Soccer (MLS). MLS hit the headlines in 2007 when Los Angeles Galaxy signed superstar David Beckham at the time perhaps the most famous sportsman in the world. Since then soccer has continued to grow in popularity in the states and MLS has become a stable entity which, although might not quite have the popularity of some of the more traditional American sports leagues, is seemingly here to stay having lasted far far longer than any of its predecessors did. Another competition I have yet to mention is the US Open Cup which has been running since 1914 and is basically an American version of the FA Cup, Coupe de France, DFB-Pokal, or one of the many other major domestic cup competitions across Europe, some of which I’ve written about in the past. That covers nicely soccer in America.


I’m not finished yet, however, as there is another story which until recently I had missed that I can now discuss in more detail. It is the story of how MLS nearly folded after the 2001 season. But first of all, I must confess that I lie as I have actually written about American soccer before. That, however, was for a school English exam paper about 20ish years ago in a piece that is long lost to the world. Remembering reports from Paul Gardner (US based British journalist now aged 91) in the excellent World Soccer magazine I was able to write about the league’s struggles to remain relevant. But little did I know was just how serious its struggles were. 

As well reading about US soccer in magazines (I still have all my old copies of World Soccer, the hoarder that I am), I would also on occasion record late night replays of MLS matches on Channel 5 to watch the next day the likes of Chicago Fire, DC United, and San Jose Earthquakes. My interest in Major League Soccer was perhaps unusual in the UK where very little attention was paid to it in the pre-Beckham era (hence the late night viewing on a fledgling channel half the country supposedly did not receive). But World Soccer, of which I was an avid reader, had always seen football as a global game and not just looked at it through British-centric eyes. It, therefore, made me more aware of the sport in other parts of the world with the kind of coverage that you generally did not get from the mainstream media, at least not to anywhere near the same levels you do today (aside from, of course, a weekly dose of Serie A on Channel 4 which was compulsory viewing back then). Plus, having an interest in American soccer made perfect sense. Firstly, there was Hollywood. Hollywood glamourised the land of the free and home of the brave whilst the rest of the world, Britain very much included, gulped it all up in huge doses. Therefore, for much of my childhood I was very much intrigued by America, a country I would not manage to visit until I entered my third decade of living. Secondly, if I was fascinated by America it was therefore obvious to combine that interest with my obsession with football. After all, like most boys growing up in North East England, I was football mad.

Whilst my reading, writing, and general interest in the subject shows I was well aware of the difficulties that faced the beautiful game across the Atlantic in the early noughties. What I do not remember, however, was just how perilous the league’s predicament actually was and exactly how close it came to folding (very apparently).

It was in the lead up to the 2002 season that Major League Soccer nearly died. Youtuber DannyTRadio covers this in a recent video about that season and having become in recent times more aware of how bad MLS’s struggles around this period were as well as, of course, coming across said video, I have now been convinced to write about the subject and provide another bit of insight.

Perhaps I was unaware of just how bad the plight of MLS was at the end of the 2001 season simply because even as late as 2016 it was a bit of a revelation. Back in 2016, Dan Hunt, co-owner and president of FC Dallas told ESPN’s Soccer Today that at the end of that ‘01 season, with financial troubles getting too much, the clubs themselves agreed to fold the league only for his dad Lamar to intervene and save professional soccer in America. This was a big revelation and the Washington Post even ran with the headline: “MLS folded for a few days in 2001 and somehow kept it a secret until now.”

“It went out of business, they were preparing the documents and that was it,” Hunt junior told ESPN, but Hunt senior, then FC Dallas owner (at the time known as Dallas Burn), had different ideas and convinced everyone to continue for one more year at least. Within 48 hours the league was saved. What actually happened, as stated by DannyTRadio in his video, was that Lamar Hunt along with businessmen Philip Anschutz and Robert Kraft took control of all the league's teams. 

One club that had been struggling was New York/New Jersey Metrostars, these days known as New York Red Bulls, and Anschutz, as reported in the January 2002 issue of World Soccer, took control of the team meaning his AEG group now owned five of the then 12 teams. With almost half the league's teams to his name, this made Anschutz and AEG group in the words of Gardner “the controlling force in the league.” That almost half would become exactly half when shortly afterwards in the lead up to the 2002 season the league trimmed itself from 12 teams to 10.

“MLS, with the stroke of a pen, had abandoned the sunshine state of Florida,” stated Paul Gardner in March 2002. Apparently, there had been talk of downsizing in Major League Baseball and MLS decided they would get into the act too with the league’s two Flordia based teams being culled. Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny were the two unfortunates and this was seen as a surprise to Gardner. Florida had, Gardner claimed, been considered a soccer hotbed in the 1970s when the old NASL league of Pele and the Cosmos was in its prime. He also stated that yes Florida had changed a lot since then but it now had a large Hispanic population and the Hispanics were often big soccer fans. Not only this but last time out Miami had had the best regular season record in the whole league. Nonetheless, the two were gone in what was no doubt a financial decision. Tampa didn’t even have a proper owner and had been run by the league which didn’t help. Also with towns such as Dallas building new soccer stadiums in the well to do suburbs, it looked as if soccer could be alienating potential, often working class, Hispanic fans anyway.

From what I remember Gardner used to talk a lot about the Hispanic market. I would not claim to know a lot about US demographics and the popularity of soccer amongst certain groups in the country. However, I do know that MLS in 2004 did introduce an LA based team aimed at Hispanics called Chivas USA but they folded ten years later.

Losing two teams in Florida like that, however, was something I could not really get my round at the time, but then I’m not American. As I am now well aware, however, this kinda thing is common on that side of the North Atlantic. In American sports, teams come and go and move about all the time without consideration for their loyal supporters whereas in the UK this is not the case. 2002 was the year Wimbledon moved to Milton Keynes and we all remember the furore that caused but in contrast Oakland, San Diego, and St Louis have all in recent years lost beloved NFL teams to other cities with barely a shrug of the shoulder. Whatever the reasoning, at the time, the idea of teams being cancelled just like that or upping sticks and moving town all of a sudden, like my favoured MLS team during this era San Jose Earthquakes did three years later, was all very alien to me. (the Earthquakes returned to MLS after a two year hiatus, however, and nowadays my team of choice in MLS are Portland Timbers)

With a new slimline 10 team league, MLS could now look towards the future and it was said that MLS had several key aims to help secure their long term existence. One of these was the building of soccer-specific stadiums for which, as mentioned, Dallas were leading the way. Interestingly, Gardner felt Anschutz had more reason than most to want to build new stadiums. Anschutz’s AEG group (Anschutz Entertainment Group) included under their wings several pop stars, and stadiums, even small to medium sized ones, were great venues for pop concerts.

There were of course also soccer based reasons for building new stadiums as had also been noted by Gardner in World Soccer too. Several months earlier Gardner had lamented in his article entitled “Soccer still only second best” that the climax of MLS league season took place as the NFL American football season was getting underway and too many of the MLS teams were secondary tenants in NFL stadiums. That meant MLS play-off schedules often were effectively dictated by NFL teams.

Also mentioned at the time of the two Florida teams folding was Anschutz striking a TV deal with ABC, one of America’s major TV networks, after he himself had purchased the TV rights. From what I remember ESPN were also showing games around this time and correct me if I’m wrong but MLS bought the rights to the 2002 World Cup and sold them to ESPN on the provision that they would continue to air MLS games, something they had apparently been reluctant to do.

20 years ago is, well, a long time ago and Major League Soccer currently has 28 teams to its name with its troubles far back in the past. It has been a slow progression for MLS to get to where it is today, however, with the league not wanting to make the mistakes of US soccer leagues of the past. Those in charge, and none more so than league commissioner Don Garber, did not want MLS to get too big too soon and fold with mountains of debt as had been the case with the leagues of yesteryear. Yes, it may have been slow going but Soccer in the US has clearly continued to grow in popularity and still is, even with the USA failing to qualify for the last men’s World Cup. Although ‘soccer’ has yet to overtake in popularity the traditional American sports such as American football, baseball, and basketball, and for all I know may never do so, it has certainly found its place in America’s sporting landscape and I am sure it is here to stay. 

Back in 2002, however, the future was far less certain as I followed from afar the sport I loved being played in a foreign land where all the teams had fancy names that seemed more akin to rugby league than football and a penalty was called a PK. This, however, was, of course, a land where it struggled to generate interest from a populous who did not in the slightest have the same love affair with the game as we do here in Britain and indeed most of Europe. (Unless, of course, you are DannyTRadio, he seems to have always been a big soccer fan)