clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

At the 10-year anniversary of very dark MLS days

Anybody want to go back to these days? Thought not.
Anybody want to go back to these days? Thought not.

I love to see the MLS passion pouring in from these new ports of call. Devoted fans from Toronto, Portland, Vancouver, Seattle and, going a little further back, Salt Lake City, have done wonders to energize Major League Soccer, now going into its 17th season.

And plenty of new fans from older markets are adding more air to the MLS baloon, too.

But we know that MLS isn’t perfect. Heck, neither is the NFL, the king-daddy of all U.S. sports, and it’s been around for almost 100 years in some form.

People see the dents and dings and understandably want better for Major League Soccer, so they raise a concerned voice. Others want it to be something completely different. (I’m not picking on new markets or new fans here; it’s just that they are less likely to notice the scarring from battles of earlier MLS days.)

As I’ve said before, my job as a journalist isn’t just to turn up news and spit out data. The more important element is layering in context and perspective.

So when fans begin pissing and moaning about how this or that is broken in MLS (or with the U.S. sides or in domestic soccer more generally), I often feel this reflexive need to tame the little brush fires of discontent with a cold-water bucket of historical perspective.

Here’s the deal: We’re right up against a 10-year anniversary that no one in MLS really celebrates. It’s one that we’d rather forget, in fact. "Just move along folks; nothing to see here."

I truly don’t believe people know just how close this thing came to shutting down 10 years ago.

We were this close to watching domestic soccer fold back in on itself. What remained might have resembled soccer here in the early 1990s, a desolate moonscape with the professional game reduced anew to outlier status. There would have been an indoor league and sprouts of pro soccer in USL markets. But who’s kidding who here? God bless the Rochester Rhinos and Richmond Kickers and such of USL, but David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Landon Donovan et al aren’t signing up for any of those markets. It’s really great AA and AAA baseball, so to speak, but it ain’t "The Show."

So we have MLS. Only, we almost didn’t have it.

Here, in a nutshell, is what Major League Soccer looked like 10 years ago:

The spiritual and cultural DNA of our country was changing right before our eyes in the weeks and months following 9/11. And who knew what would come of the economy?

Major League Soccer had just reduced itself to 10 teams. On Jan. 8, 2002, commissioner Don Garber and the league’s (tiny) board of directors made the painful decision to severe the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion. It was amputating a leg to save the man. ( columnist Jonah Freedman writes in excellent depth about the contraction and its ramifications choices here in this article.)

Remember, this was smack in the middle of massive financial suffering in MLS. The league lost $350 million between founding in 1996 and 2004, hemorrhaging that mostly fell on three investors. Yes, they are all rich. But who relishes losing money? I know that if I fumble away a $1 bill on the way out of the coffee shop, I'm pissed off all the way home.

As such, there was real talk of folding the entire operation. It was a well-kept secret back then; you surely can understand why. Things would only get worse if fans, media and sponsors knew the whole, grisly reality. But word has dripped out since that ceasing operations was a legitimate option on the table. Looking back, I think most people (such as myself) probably were going backwards as they considered the Florida contractions.

Yes, that left the league with 10 teams – which is barely a league. So most reactions tilted toward the grim and the dire. "If they are eliminating teams, and if they are down to such a puny sum of clubs, can the end be far behind?"

But I think now it was the other way around. I believe by the time the contractions were announced, Major League Soccer's own "Cuban Missile Crisis" was past. The nuclear option was off the table.

Contraction, painful as it was, and despite the obvious PR blow, was an essential part of the reconstruction plan. The thinking went something like this: "We simply cannot go forward under status quo. We can shut down. And maybe we should. Or we can push forward – but there must be changes, because this isn’t working."

That was 10 years ago. Or put another way, not so far back.

Those 10 teams and those ever so modest TV contracts of 2002 have grown into something that would have been unthinkable back in those days of somber austerity.

There was one stadium built specifically for MLS back then. One! Now there are 13.

TV contracts are providing reasonable revenue and still moving in the right direction. The L.A. Galaxy’s new 10-year regional television deal with Time Warner, for a whopping $55 million, is a real game-changer. (By the way, a source from AEG told me during MLS Cup week that the TV deal was never contingent on whether David Beckham returned for another season or seasons, which makes the new TV deal even better for MLS and the Galaxy.)

There are 19 teams now; that amplified national footprint means so much in the TV rights fee world. Attendance, by the way, keeps climbing steadily forward.

No, things aren’t perfect. And it’s always OK to want your league (and certainly your home team) to be better, to improve, to reach ever higher. But I sometimes bristle when I hear complaints about the operations, about budgets, about certain personalities at MLS headquarters. Not because they need defending, but because these things always deserve rooting in context and at least a little historical understanding.

You’d be plain ignorant today to exhort a German citizen to be more boisterously proud of their land – without considering the country’s dark history and its citizens' complex relationship with it all. You wouldn’t complain about American automakers’ conservative planning today without understanding yesterday's bailouts and effects of the 2008-2010 automotive crisis.

Nor should we rush headfirst into more aggressive changes, wholly different ways and means for MLS, without understanding the complex backdrop.

Personally, I look at domestic soccer and think it’s all in a pretty good place.