A Brief History of MLS: Part Two

So you’ve read Part One of our MLS history piece, and you’ve learned all about some of the changes the game has undergone and the original teams. But you’re probably wondering how we got from those ten teams to the twenty we have now? Luckily for you, I have the answer.

The Expansion Era

As you know, MLS began play in 1996 with ten teams. But it only took the league two years to make its first foray into expansion. And once it started, it never stopped. Since 1998, MLS has added thirteen teams to the league and relocated one. (Don’t worry, I’ll explain how 10 + 13 = 20.) So travel through time with me as I take a brief look at each expansion team and how they’ve fared throughout the years.

Chicago Fire

In 1998, the Chicago Fire joined MLS as one of the two first MLS expansion clubs. Though we tend to poke fun at the Fire here at Total MLS, they actually have a fairly successful club history. Under the club’s first coach Bob Bradley, the Fire defeated the Columbus Crew 2-0 to take home the MLS Cup. Just barely a week later they won the first of four U.S. Open Cup championships, the others coming in 2000, 2003 and 2006. How many of you knew the Fire were the most successful club in U.S. Open Cup history? Be honest. (Okay, technically they’re tied with the Seattle Sounders.)

The Fire continued to have amazing success in their early years, winning the Supporters’ Shield in 2003 alongside their third U.S. Open Cup. It wasn’t until 2004, their seventh year in MLS that they missed the playoffs for the first time. Two years later they found success once more when they won the 2006 U.S. Open Cup, but the Fire’s story has been a much different tale since then.

The Fire’s struggles began in 2007 and haven’t really ended since. They were in and out of the playoffs from ’07-’12, but haven’t managed to find their way into the post-season since 2013. Since the beginning of 2007, the Fire have had eight different head coaches. They’re still hoping to find the right person to lead them to their successful ways of old.

Miami Fusion

The Miami Fusion also joined MLS in 2008 and became the league’s second Florida based team alongside the Tampa Bay Mutiny. Unlike their expansion counterparts in the Fire, Miami’s history is relatively short and not very storied. The Fusion did manage to win the 2001 Supporters’ Shield, but that’s about the only noteworthy thing in their history.

The demise of the Fusion really has less to do with the club and more to do with MLS. After 2001, the league was in serious financial trouble and was forced to take drastic measures in order to stay in existence. In January 2002, MLS announced that they would cease operations in the state of Florida, meaning the Miami Fusion would go the way of the dodo along with the Tampa Bay Mutiny. And so ends the story of MLS in Miami, right? Not so fast.

As MLS continues its expansion crusade, David Beckham has formed an ownership group to explore the option of bringing MLS back to Miami. Could we one day see the return of the Miami Fusion? Maybe Miami Beckham FC? Only time will tell.

Chivas USA

To be honest, Chivas USA was probably doomed from the start. Joining MLS in 2005, they were already nine years behind their neighbor and one of MLS’ premiere teams, the LA Galaxy. Chivas had a terrible first year and took drastic measures to turn things around when they hired Bob Bradley in 2006 as the team’s third head coach in just its second year.

Bradley helped Chivas find some success before leaving after just one season to take the helm of the USMNT. MLS legend Preki took over as head coach and continued to build on Bradley’s success. 2007 was Chivas’ most successful year as they won the Western Conference in the regular season but failed to make it past the conference semi-finals. Since then it’s been all downhill for Chivas.

The team never had consistent on-field success and faced off-field turmoil in the form of discrimination lawsuits by staff members and constant front office changes. In 2014, MLS purchased the club and announced plans to sell it to new owners and rebrand it for the 2015 season. However, those plans never came to fruition, and 2014 became the last season for Chivas USA.

Real Salt Lake

RSL joined MLS alongside Chivas USA in 2005, but their stories are anything but the same. RSL struggled in its first three seasons, but by year four the team found its stride. Before the 2008 season, RSL signed some of its most important players to this day, including Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, and Jamison Olave.

Despite a losing record of 11-12-7 in 2009, RSL grabbed the last playoff spot and went on to win the club’s first and only MLS Cup when they defeated the LA Galaxy. RSL went on to have one of the most successful runs in CONCACAF Champions League by an MLS team when they reached the 2010-11 final. Sadly, a gut-wrenching 3-2 aggregate loss to Mexican side Monterey kept them from becoming the first MLS team to win the tournament.

In 2013, RSL made their way back to the MLS Cup final and played on the road against Sporting Kansas City in what was the coldest MLS game ever played at 20° F. Despite the cold, the 2013 MLS Cup final became one of the all-time great games in MLS history. Sadly for RSL, it didn’t go their way as SKC won 7-6 on penalties. They haven’t been back to the finals since.

Houston Dynamo

Okay, so technically the Dynamo aren’t an expansion team. The San Jose Earthquakes moved to Houston after the 2005 season and rebranded as the Dynamo. However, few people know that the original name for the new Houston team was Houston 1836 in a nod to the year in which the city was founded. Thankfully, they settled on the Dynamo instead.

Houston wasted no time in making their mark on MLS winning back-to-back MLS Cups in 2006 and 2007. They also became the first MLS team to win a point in Mexico during the CONCACAF Champions League in 2008. The Dynamo went on to reach the 2011 and 2012 MLS Cup finals but lost both to Landon Donovan and the LA Galaxy.

The Dynamo have bounced back and forth between the Eastern and Western conferences, originally starting in the West, then moving East in 2011 before returning to the West for the 2015 season alongside Sporting KC. The West hasn’t treated Houston well, as they currently sit in last place in the Western Conference.

Toronto FC

In 2007, MLS took a bold step and made its way north of the border. Toronto FC became MLS’ first Canadian team in league history. TFC is owned by the same group who owns the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs and the NBA’s Toronto Raptors.

Since TFC joined MLS in the pre-Internet trolling era, fans actually helped choose the name in an online vote. Other options included “Toronto Northernmen,” “Inter Toronto FC” and “Toronto Reds.” (Try this today and you’re looking at the Toronto Harambe’s.)

Despite high hopes by fans and owners, TFC struggled in its early years. The 2013-14 offseason marked a turning point as TFC broke the MLS transfer record when they acquired USMNT star Michael Bradley from A.S. Roma for $10 million. The team finally made its first playoffs in 2015, thanks in part to new designated player and eventual 2015 MLS MVP Sebastian Giovinco. Despite their lack of MLS Cup success, TFC has won five Canadian Championships since 2009, more than any other Canadian soccer team.

San Jose Earthquakes (again)

I’m not going to go into much detail here since I covered the history of the Quakes in Part One, but just for the sake of the timeline, know that San Jose came back into MLS for the 2008 season.

Seattle Sounders

The Sounders didn’t join MLS until 2009, but Seattle’s soccer history long pre-dates then. In fact, the Seattle Sounders have existed in some form since 1974 when the first iteration of the Sounders played in the NASL.

Seattle put together a pretty strong campaign to earn one of the original ten MLS teams back in 1996, but they came up just short. Seattle’s heart was broken again in 2003 when Salt Lake barely won in a head-to-head battle for a coveted MLS expansion spot.

The Sounders finally won the right to join MLS for the 2009 season. Since then, they’ve become one of the premier teams in the league and have arguably the best supporters and atmosphere in all of MLS. They’re still looking for their first MLS Cup, but they did win the 2014 Supporters’ Shield with the help of big name signing Clint Dempsey who joined from EPL side Tottenham Hotspur after the 2012 season in what was then the largest transfer deal in MLS history at $9 million. They’ve also won four U.S. Open Cups, three-peating from 2009-2011 and again winning in 2014.

Philadelphia Union

The Union joined MLS in the 2010 season after a nine year effort that began way back in 2001. To be honest, the Union have had a less than memorable first six years of existence since then.

The team hasn’t won any sort of championship or trophy, but they have made it to two U.S. Open Cup finals in 2014 and 2015, the latter of which they lost on a heartbreaking 7-6 shootout to Sporting KC. (SKC really likes dramatic shootouts.)

Other than that, there’s not much to say about the Union. They’re definitely heading in the right direction as they look much improved this year, but they’re still looking for their first trophy in club history.

Portland Timbers

Similar to the Sounders, the Timbers can trace their roots (see what I did there?) back to the early NASL days where the team first began play in 1975. Unlike the Sounders, the Timbers have actually won an MLS Cup. (Sorry Sounders fans.) 

Portland joined MLS for the 2011 season and had a forgettable year, finishing 12th in MLS. The 2012 season was even worse. But the Timbers found their stride in 2013 under new head coach Caleb Porter when they finished atop the Western Conference, even though they were eliminated in the conference finals. 

After struggling in the 2014 season, the Timbers got back to the playoffs in 2015 where they faced Sporting KC in their first match. Remember what I said about SKC liking dramatic shootouts? You won’t find anymore drama than when Portland defeated SKC 7-6 on penalties that was decided by the keepers. SKC fans will never forget Saad Abdul-Salaam’s would-be game winner that bounced off both posts but never went in. I’m pretty sure Portland fans will never forget it either.

Oh, and Timbers fans might have a thing or two to say about who the best supporters are in the league. I have to say, it’s hard to argue against the case for the Timbers Army.

Vancouver Whitecaps

Another team that goes back to the mid-1970s, Vancouver joined MLS in 2011 with the Timbers and became the second Canadian side in the league. They haven’t done much since then, but they are the only Canadian team to have made MLS playoffs twice. (That will obviously change this season.)

Outside of MLS play, the Whitecaps won the 2015 Canadian Championship and finished second in the 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2016 tournaments.

Montreal Impact

After dissolving as an NASL club, Impact de Montreal were "re-born" as the 19th MLS team and played their first MLS match in 2012.

In 2013 the Impact made the MLS playoffs for the first time, but their playoff lives were short-lived as the Dynamo knocked the Impact out in the first round. A year later, the Impact severely regressed in MLS play and were the worst team in the league. However, they were able to win the 2014 Canadian Championship, earning them a spot in the 2015 CONCACAF Champions League. The Impact became the first Canadian team to reach the final where they lost to Liga MX side Club América.

The Impact returned to the playoffs in 2015 with the help of summer signing and Chelsea legend Didier Drogba.

New York City FC

NYCFC was announced in May 2013 as a joint venture between the New York Yankees and Manchester City of the English Premier League. NYCFC wasted no time signing stars as David Villa became the team’s first player, shortly to be followed by Chelsea all-time leading scorer Frank Lampard. In July 2015, NYCFC signed Italian legend Andrea Pirlo as their third designated player.

NYCFC only has one full season of play under their belt, so there’s not much time for them to have done anything noteworthy. But, they look well on their way to making some noise in the playoffs this season as they sit atop the Eastern Conference along with Toronto FC and NYRB.

Orlando City SC

Similar to NYCFC, Orlando City joined MLS in 2015 to round out the league at an even twenty teams. They became the first MLS team in Florida since the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion folded in 2002. However, Orlando City wasn’t an entirely new team. OCSC had played in the United Soccer League (USL) from 2011-2014 where they won three championships in four years before making the move to MLS.

Before starting MLS play in 2015, Orlando City made headlines when they signed Brazilian superstar Kaká as their first designated player. They haven’t done much else since, but perhaps their greatest accomplishment to date was using their first overall pick in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft to select Canadian forward Cyle Larin from the University of Connecticut, or as we at Total MLS like to call him, Canadian Messi.

To Infinity (28?) and Beyond!

So all of that expansion (and dissolution) brings MLS up to the twenty teams we have today. What’s next for the league? MLS Commissioner Don Garber has publicly stated he intends to grow the league to twenty-eight teams. The first steps toward twenty-eight begin next season when Atlanta United and Minnesota United join MLS for the 2017 season.

Following Atlanta and Minnesota, Los Angeles Football Club (LAFC) will join the league in 2018. That gets us up to twenty-three teams. So where are the other five coming from?

MLS has said that David Beckham and his ownership group can have a team in Miami assuming they secure a site for a soccer-specific stadium, something proving more difficult than originally thought. Despite these difficulties, it’s expected that Beckham’s Miami team will become the 24th MLS franchise in the relatively near future.

After that, your guess is as good as ours. Sacramento, St. Louis, San Antonio, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Louisville and Oklahoma City all have NASL or USL teams that would like to make the move to MLS, with Sacramento looking like early favorites to earn a spot. Other cities including Las Vegas, San Diego and Austin have all expressed interest as well. Wherever MLS goes next and whoever the final twenty-eight teams end up being, rest assured Total MLS will be there to get you the coverage you need.

So that wraps up my two-part series on MLS history. Hopefully you’ve learned a thing or two about the league we all love. Any questions or thoughts? Let me know in the comments!