A Brief History of Major League Soccer

In 1988, the United States was awarded the great privilege of hosting the 1994 FIFA World Cup, a huge honor for a country without the proud soccer tradition of other bidding countries. The decision was somewhat of a shock at the time, especially after a failed 1986 bid and the little fact that the Stars and Stripes hadn’t qualified for a World Cup since 1950 – 38 years at the time.

However, the U.S. prevailed in their bid, beating out finalists Morocco and odds-on favorite Brazil. But the victory did not come without conditions. One of those conditions: the U.S. would establish a premier division one professional soccer league. Eight years later, Major League Soccer (MLS) was born.

MLS has changed a lot in the twenty years since its inception. Teams that were are no more. A team that didn’t exist are the current defending champions. The league has doubled its size, growing from ten clubs in 1996 to twenty clubs in 2016. Three more clubs will join over the next two seasons, and MLS plans to expand to 28 clubs in the future.

The league went through a lot of growing pains as it tried to break into the world of American sports. In an effort to make the beautiful game more relatable to the everyday American, the league ditched many traditional rules:

  • Instead of an upward counting game clock, MLS opted to count down from 45 minutes at the beginning of each half. The clock stopped during dead ball situations. There was no stoppage time.

  • For penalty shootouts, the player taking the penalty would start 35 yards out and have five seconds to run furiously toward the goal with the ball. The keeper would come fully out of the net in an attempt to stop the penalty shot. (It was actually pretty entertaining.)

  • The pitch was much smaller. Minimum dimensions were 50 yards by 100 yards, as opposed to the 70 yards by 110 yards of present day.

There were a lot of other differences as well. Too many to discuss here. But since then, soccer has become much more mainstream in the US. As the game grew in popularity, the rules eventually were changed to more closely align with the rest of the world. (The most notable exception to this being the “single entity” system still used by MLS today.)

But the rules of the game are not the only things that changed over the last twenty years. Perhaps even more so than the changes to the game are the changes many individual clubs have gone through. So since some of you are relatively new to MLS fandom (or weren’t even BORN when the league began), I thought I’d give you a little history lesson on some of the biggest changes for MLS clubs.

The Original Ten:

When MLS first took shape in 1996, there were ten clubs in the league: the Colorado Rapids, the Columbus Crew, the Dallas Burn, D.C. United, the Kansas City Wiz, the Los Angeles Galaxy, the New England Revolution, New York/New Jersey MetroStars, the San Jose Clash and the Tampa Bay Mutiny.

 MLS Originals - (photo courtesy of si.com)

MLS Originals - (photo courtesy of si.com)

As you can probably tell, five of those ten teams no longer exist, at least in the form they once did. The Rapids, the Crew, D.C. United, the Galaxy and the Revolution all are still around today, and they’ve all been fairly successful. All but the Revs have won MLS cup at least once, and the Galaxy have won it a league high five times. (BTW, don’t feel too bad for the Revs. They’ve reached MLS Cup finals five times and won the 2007 U.S. Open Cup.)

But it’s the other five clubs have a little more complicated history. So let’s take a closer look at those.

NY/NJ MetroStars

One of the premier clubs of early MLS, the NY/NJ MetroStars were actually originally known as Empire Soccer Club, although the team never played a game under that name. After they settled on the name “MetroStars,” a nod to the company of team founder John Kluge, the MetroStars made MLS history by signing the league’s first player: Tab Ramos. And who can forget when they drafted Túlio in the ’96 Supplemental Draft? No, not Brazillian star Túlio Costa. This Túlio never played a single minute for the MetroStars, never made a public appearance and we still don’t really know who he is. If you can figure it out, let me know.

Expected to be a powerhouse in the league, the MetroStars couldn’t find the success many thought they’d have. Big name signings were common, but on-field success wasn’t there.

Despite the hiring of successful coaches including MLS Cup winning Bob Bradley, the MetroStars never won a major U.S. trophy. In fact, the only trophy they won under the MetroStars name came in 2004 when they beat Ukraine’s premier team Dynamo Kyiv in the La Manga Cup, an international soccer tournament held in Spain. The MetroStars were the only U.S. club to win the tournament before U.S. clubs stopped participating.

Just two years after winning their first trophy, Red Bull purchased the club and changed the name to Red Bull New York, still technically the team’s name today despite the fact they’re commonly referred to as the New York Red Bulls. Since then, they’ve continued to see major names come and go, including U.S. international Jozy Altidore, French legend Thierry Henry and Premier League star Tim Cahill.

The club would go on to win its first major MLS honor in 2013 when it won the Supporters Shield, followed by a repeat win in 2015. The Red Bulls are still looking for their first MLS Cup.

Kansas City Wizards

Oh, the Wizards. Who can forget those rainbow uniforms? Best throwback’s in MLS? Well, I guess that depends who you ask, but my vote is a resounding “Yes!”

Unlike the Red Bulls, the Kansas City Wizards (or the Wiz as they were known in the first season) had a pretty successful run on the pitch under their old name. The won the club’s first Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup in 2000 led by the teams current coach Peter Vermes. They went on to make another appearance in the 2004 MLS cup final and won the U.S. Open Cup that year as well.

For as much success as the Wizards had on the pitch, it was just about the opposite off of it. The team struggled to attract fans to the Kansas City Chiefs’ Arrowhead Stadium. With low average attendance, the giant NFL stadium looked virtually empty at every home game. Season ticket holders were an endangered species.

Fast forward to 2006 and the Wizards were sold to a new ownership group. One with strong Kansas City roots determined to get the city behind the club. They began the rebranding project that resulted in the renaming of the club to Sporting Kansas City beginning with the 2011 season, the same year their new state-of-the-art soccer specific stadium would open. Since then, SKC has sold out 85 consecutive MLS matches, gained more than 10,000 season ticket holders and have won three trophies in four seasons (two U.S. Open Cups and one MLS Cup). Not bad.

San Jose Clash


Now known as the San Jose Earthquakes, this club has perhaps one of the most confusing and convoluted histories in MLS. The team can trace its roots back to the mid-1970s in the NASL, when San Jose was awarded an expansion team. The Earthquakes played in the NASL until the league folded in the mid-1980s. The Quakes switched to the Western Soccer League, and shortly after they were renamed the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks and played until the early 1990s. In ’92 the team switched leagues and names once again, playing in the USL as the San Jose Hawks.

When MLS finally came around, San Jose was awarded one of the league’s founding franchises. However, instead of going back to the name Earthquakes, the owners instead opted for the name the San Jose Clash due to pressure from league partner Nike. (Still with me?)

The team came full circle once again in 1999 when they finally returned to the original name, the San Jose Earthquakes. So that’s how we got to where we are today, right? Well, not exactly. Despite winning MLS Cup in 2001 and 2003 and a Supporters’ Shield in 2005 under the new (old?) name, the team moved to Houston in the 2006 season. (More on that in next week’s MLS History, Part Two!)

The funny thing about history is it has a way of repeating itself. Sometimes more than once. In 2008, after a two season hiatus, the San Jose Earthquakes were resurrected once again. THAT is the version of the Earthquakes we still have today. The club found success once again winning the Supporters’ Shield in 2012, but other than that has struggled since rejoining MLS.

Dallas Burn


Texas’ first MLS team, the Dallas Burn got off to a great start playing in front of a sellout crowd at the Cotton Bowl and defeating the Clash in a shootout. One year later in 1997, the Burn won their first and only U.S. Open Cup championship. Unfortunately, the rest of their time under the Dallas Burn name didn’t turn out to be quite as successful.

The team struggled under three different coaches in the following years. They were even forced to play the 2003 season at a high school football stadium. Following the 2004 season, club owner Lamar Hunt decided it was time for a major overhaul, and the Burn rebranded to FC Dallas.

FC Dallas played their first season under their new name in 2005, the same year their soccer specific stadium opened in Frisco, Texas. The team regularly made the playoffs but couldn’t get past the conference semifinals. Dallas quickly made two U.S. Open Cup finals in 2005 and 2007 but lost both. The club finally made its first MLS Cup finals appearance in 2010, but lost an extra-time heartbreaker to Colorado.

The team’s fortunes finally took a positive turn this week when FC Dallas defeated the New England Revolution to win the 2016 U.S. Open Cup, the club’s first major trophy since 1997.

Tampa Bay Mutiny


Never heard of the Tampa Bay Mutiny? Well, unless you were a fan pre-2001, that’s not surprising. This team only lasted six seasons in MLS before the league ceased operations in the state of Florida.

The Mutiny got off to an incredibly promising start, winning MLS first ever Supporters’ Shield in the inaugural season following the lead of MLS’ first MVP, Carlos Valderrama. The Mutiny’s other star, Roy Lassiter, still holds the MLS record for most single season goals at 27.

Despite their success, the Mutiny struggled to gain fans and lacked an ownership group. They continued to succeed on the pitch, making the playoffs four out of the first five years, but no on field success could stop the impending doom facing the Mutiny. After the 2001 season, the Mutiny were no more.

Wait, So How’d We Get to 20 Clubs Today?

Good question. Lucky for you, I’m going to answer that in Part 2 of this story, MLS History 201: The Expansion Era! Look for that to hit totalmls.net next week.