One common complaint about MLS these days is the hyperbole that surrounds the league and the stakes that are pinned to its success. MLS likes to position itself as a sort of pilot fish (or maybe a canary) for Soccer In America. If soccer is to be a thing in the US, if it’s to enjoy sustainable economic success and cultural visibility, MLS has to not only survive but thrive. It’s an idea that’s becoming harder to sustain given the league’s current status as a stable and growing league, but there was a time when it wasn’t much of an exaggeration.
This week, we look back at the first MLS game, and how far the country’s fledgling top flight soccer league has come.
When MLS launched in spring 1996, there really seemed to be a lot at stake. Most of you know the story by now— US Soccer agreed to form a new (and viable) top flight domestic league as a precondition for hosting the 1994 World Cup, and that mandate, combined with the USMNT’s showing in 1990 and 1994 as well as the 1995 Copa América and the explosive growth of youth soccer, provided a singular opportunity to nail down soccer’s place as an American sport.
Yet even with the game’s increased cultural presence in the US, Major League Soccer was far from a sure bet. The same headwinds that kept soccer at the margins of American sports and cultural landscape were still present, and the spectre of the old NASL still loomed in the background. There was a palpable sense that the first season, the first game, had to work. But you know, no pressure.
Unsurprisingly, that first game, which was “livestreamed” last night on MLS’ website, was rough around the edges. Some of it couldn’t be helped (like the 90s bowl-shaped haircuts) and some things, like the countdown clock, were byproducts of a time when MLS’ stakeholders and decision makers thought that the only way to make soccer appealing was to make it more like American sports. (Thankfully, the first game didn’t have to be decided with hockey shootouts.)
As a first outing, the game itself more or less did the trick. The teams had a familiar mix of returning American stalwarts— John Harkes, et al— and foreign stars that has become a hallmark of MLS rosters. The crowd was strong in both numbers and volume level. And Eric Wynalda’s late goal ensured the game wouldn’t end in a draw (quelle horreur). The halftime show even featured brash opinionating from Alexi Lalas, proving that some things never change.
20 years on, MLS still faces problems and growing pains. But the league today is in a much stronger position than the league alluded to in the #MLS96 hashtag on Twitter. MLS today is concerned primarily with competition for talent, both within the US (from the resurgent NASL) and outside of it (the Chinese Super League). The league is still working on that magical formula for sustainable growth and cultural import. But those problems are a world away from the kinds of existential crises that plagued MLS that first year and for the following five seasons.
MLS fans will undoubtedly look back on this season 20 years or more hence with the same kind of mild discomfort that we see in the sloppy play and floppy bowl cuts in the inaugural game. But we can also be relatively certain that there will be MLS fans in 20 years. It’s worth remembering that, when the Clash and DC United met 20 years ago this week, that wasn’t necessarily a given.