History of Major League Soccer (MLS) in the US

Major League Soccer doesn’t need an introduction. It is one of the highest-level men’s professional soccer leagues played in the US and Canada. The venture started back in 1993, but the first season was held in 1996 with ten teams. Since then, the popularity and love for MLS is growing throughout the world. Currently, it is the most enjoyed, prominent and profitable soccer league of all the time in the U.S.A.

Let’s take a look at the history of Major League Soccer to find out when and how it was established? What were the hurdles it faced in the past? And more..

Early History of MLS

Before the arrival of Major League Soccer (from 1968 to 1984); the North American Soccer League was there. At that time, it was just a free-spending league which became the main reason for its demise. There were uneven revenues between the teams and finally, the league folded.

If we talk about U.S., the first successful national soccer league came much later to this country as compare to the other countries across the world. MLS was established in 1993. However, its first session was held in 1996 when the America’s official governing body of soccer ‘United States Soccer Federation’ committed the establishment of Division 1 professional soccer league as the part of a bid for hosting the World Cup in 1994.

The Beginning of MLS

  • The precursor of MLS, Major League Professional Soccer was selected as the Division 1 professional soccer league by USSF in 1993.
  • In February 1995, MLS was formed officially as a liability company.
  • Although the original plan was to begin the league with 12 teams in 1995, but the delay of its launch was announced in November 1994.
  • Finally, in 1996, the league started with 10 teams. Below are the names:
  1. New England Revolution 
  2. Columbus Crew
  3. Tampa Bay Mutiny 
  4. D.C. United
  5. NY/NJ MetroStars 
  6. Colorado Rapids 
  7. Kanas City Wiz
  8. San Jose Clash
  9. Los Angeles Galaxy 
  10. Dallas Burn
  • The league managed to persuade some marquee players from the 1994 World Cup to be a part of MLS. Some prominent names were: Tony Meola, Alexi Lalas, Eric Wynalda, Carlos Valderrama, Jorge Campos, etc.
  • Tab Ramos was the first player to sign the MLS for NY/NJ MetroStars in 1995.
  • Out of 10 teams, D.C. United won the Major League Soccer Cup in 1996 after playing the finale against LA Galaxy.
  • The first commissioner of MLS was Doug Logan.
  • ABC and ESPN sports bought the MLS live broadcasting rights with a 3-year deal from 1996 to 1998, including 35 matches and MLS World. They announced this contract on 15 March 1994. 
  • D.C. United managed to win three out of four MLS Cup titles.
  • In 1998, the league introduced its expansion teams: the Chicago Fire and the Miami Fusion. 

Struggles of MLS

The league struggled financially during the early years of its formation. That was because initially MLS was played in college fields, NFL stadiums or High school Football Stadiums and it was difficult to secure TV rights without playing in professional soccer stadiums. Hence, gaining national audience was the real challenge. At last, two teams had to drop because of financial crises in 2002, including Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny.

Moreover, the traditional fans were not happy with the ‘Americanization’ of the game in the beginning of the league. For instance, MLS was scheduled from spring to fall and on the other hand, Premier League used to run from fall to the springs. Secondly, the way of crowning in MLS season was different than the Premier League. 

Implementation of International Standards and Rules

Major League Soccer adopted the standards and rules of IFAB (International Football Association Board) in the mid-2000s. For those who don’t know; IFAB is a global organization that is responsible for creating rules known as Laws of the Game that are recognized and enforced by FIFA

Besides, MLS also constructed home stadiums for its matches rather relying on NFL grounds. Later, league expanded successfully by including more teams. 

Growth of Major League Soccer 

  • MLS has been growing successfully since 2002 with its soccer-specific stadiums. 
  • Better contracts with national TV were established.
  • MLS teams were enabled to sign star players due to the enforcement of the ‘Designated Player Rule’.
  • LA Galaxy signed the English star, world’s famous footballer – David Beckham in 2007, and it helped a lot in putting a spotlight on MLS. 
  • Beckham was the first internationally recognized, high-profile player to join MLS and since then the Designated Player Rule is unofficially known as the Beckham Rule.
  • Meanwhile, Toronto FC became a part of league, and Colorado Rapids was bought by Stan Kroenke. These changes played an important part in earning fame for MLS.
  • Due to the national growth, the league started growing financially and was able to expand across the U.S. and Canada.
  • MLS managed to attract young fans as well because of the YouTube channel, Kick TV. The rights were sold to COPA90 eventually. 
  • Besides, MLS also used social media networks to interact with their fans direct and to boost their interest in the game. Till date, the social media presence of the league has been going strong.

Popularity of MLS V/S Other Sports in the USA 

A majority of fans in the U.S. are attracted towards four main sports, including NBA, MLB, NFL and NHL. However, it is now believed that MLS comes on the 5th rank in the list of the most famous sports in America. 

  • CNBC presented a report which showed an increase in the number of audience ratings during the regular season of 2021.
  • At one point, MLS Cup had around 1.6 million spectators watching the match between Portland Timbers and NYCFC. On the other hand, NHL had 3.51 million people viewing the Stanley Cup on the following year.
  • The gap between these two is getting closer each season, and MLS is becoming better with the number of views every year. Hence, there are huge chances for the league to reach to the number 4 rank.

List of MLS Teams

MLS is categorized into two conferences: the Western Conference and the Eastern Conference. Recently, there are 26 teams taking part in MLS; 14 out of them are in Eastern Conference, while 12 comes under Western Conference. It is predicted that MLS might increase their number of teams to 30 by 2023 season. 

Here is the chart displaying names of team playing in MLS 2022 season under their categories. 

Eastern Conference  Western Conference 
New York City FC Austin FC
Philadelphia Union Los Angeles FC
CF Montréal  FC Dallas 
Orlando City SC Nashville SC
New York Red Bulls Minnesota United FC
Charlotte FC Real Salt Lake
Columbus Crew  Seattle Sounders FC 
FC Cincinnati  LA Galaxy 
Inter Miami CF Portland Timbers 
Chicago Fire FC Vancouver Whitecaps FC
Atlanta United FC Colorado Rapids 
New England Revolution  San Jose Earthquakes 
D.C. United  Houston Dynamo FC
Toronto FC  Sporting Kanas City

The Recent Format of MLS

As per the most recent MLS season; each team needs to play 34 matches, which includes 17 home games along with 17 away games. Moreover, all teams are required to play against every Conference opposition twice.

The team having the best regular-season record is awarded with Supporters’ Shield. However, the main attraction of Major League Soccer Cup remains the end-of-season playoff winners. 

What is The Criteria For MLS Teams To Qualify For Champions League?

  • Five MLS teams make it to the CONCACAF CHAMPIONS LEAGUE every season; four teams are from the U.S., while one is from Canada. 
  • The two teams from the US qualify on the basis of regular-season results of both, Western Conference and Eastern Conference. The third one is the winning team of MLS Cup, whereas the forth team can join after winning the US Open Cup (in America, it is equal to FA Cup). 


Major League Soccer is one of the top sports played and loved in the United States of America. It was officially established in 1993, but it took a few more years to work properly. Initially, the league faced a lot of hurdles in terms of finances and playing areas. However, things got better after some time and it is now a popular sport throughout the world. 

Finally, the addition of some known names in the league made it possible to capture the spotlight. Secondly, the paid deals with national TV also played a huge part in taking MLS to the top position. Today, we see several soccer-specific stadiums catering Major League Soccer matches across the United States. The increase in number of audiences is also noteworthy. 

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