Since the birth of Major League Soccer in 1993, professional football has gone from strength to strength in the United States of America. Initially part of a promise made during the bidding process for the 1994 World Cup, the MLS's inaugural season took place in 1996 and featured just 10 teams. The MLS is getting stronger and more popular with each passing season and there are currently 19 franchises, with several more set to join in the coming years.
Though it had generally lagged behind the traditional 'Big Four' sports in terms of popularity, professional soccer wasn't by any means new to America. In the late 1970s, the North American Soccer League (NASL) had all the razzmatazz that one would normally associate with professional sports in the US.
Big names like Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff all flocked to the league and for a while it all proved to be very popular. Unfortunately, there was no sustainable business model to support it and by 1985 the NASL was consigned to history. Despite the myth that America saw the sport as a bit of a joke, the country's best attempt at an organised football league had at least proved that there was definitely a viable market for domestic professional soccer.
After the failure of the NASL, the biggest challenge for the MLS was always going to be continued popularity and sustainable growth. Following the initial excitement of the debut season in 1996, average attendances had slowly begun to fall and by 2001 both of the league's Florida based teams had folded as a result of poor revenues and increasingly low fan turnout. The success of the US national team at the 2002 World Cup, however, seemed to go some way to recapturing the American public's interest in soccer. Team USA reached the quarter finals, the country's best performance since the inaugural World Cup in 1930, sparking an excitement which was reflected by a brief spike in the popularity of the MLS.
In the years after 2002, the league continued to make steady, if unspectacular, progress. The real game-changing moment came with the arrival of David Beckham, who joined Los Angeles Galaxy from Real Madrid in 2007. The former England captain was one of world football's most famous faces and his arrival saw the MLS enter new territory not seen since the days of the old NASL. The league adapted its rules regarding salary caps to attract more famous players, while big corporate sponsors were suddenly very interested in what the MLS had to offer - even before Beckham had played a game, LA Galaxy were able to engineer a $20m shirt sponsorship deal with nutrition company Herbalife. The advent of the Beckham era also saw attendances across the whole league increase by nearly 10% on the previous year, while the Galaxy's average home attendance shot up by nearly 5,000 to over 24,000 between 2006 and 2007.
Since 2007, both directly and indirectly, Beckham has arguably had more of an impact on the MLS than the combined efforts of all those who came before him. Players such as Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, Robbie Keane, Torsten Frings and Guillermo Barros Schelotto joined the revolution, followed most recently by Jermain Defoe and there was less need for home grown stars like Landon Donovan to go abroad. The league was also able to grow, with six new franchises having joined since 2007, including an expansion into Canada's three largest cities.
By 2013 Beckham had left, but the MLS was surfing a wave that is only set to get bigger with time. It was a year which saw the Seattle Sounders set an attendance record for the fifth season in a row, with an average turnout of 44,038 across the whole campaign. The team from Washington state were better supported than the majority of Premier League teams and the figure was also higher than every team in Major League Baseball over the same period, except for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Across the rest of the league, 10 of the eighteen other teams also saw an increase in their average attendance compared to 2012, while the overall number of people going to games in 2013 surpassed six million for the second year in a row. Compared to the big leagues in Europe, the average attendance in the MLS is now only marginally behind France's Ligue 1 and the Dutch Eredivisie.
After retiring from playing and determined to keep building up the sport in a country he has already done so much for, Beckham is now ready to own his own franchise. At a recent press conference held with league commissioner Don Garber, the former player revealed his plans to start a new team in Miami and described it as "living a dream". Beckham wants to make his franchise the best there is, not just in terms of bringing in top class foreign footballers, but through the development of local talent. The former LA Galaxy star knows that success will be a challenge and he is willing to work harder than ever to keep it growing, not just for soccer in Miami, but for the whole of the United States.
In 2015, Orlando City SC will become the first MLS team from Florida since 2001, whilst Manchester City's venture stateside, New York City FC, will become the first team actually based in the Big Apple itself. New York Cosmos, reborn in 2010, are also confident of being involved at some point in the near future. By 2020, the MLS plans to have expanded to 24 teams with the now realistic target of making the old 'Big Four' into a new 'Big Five'.
At least for now, the only direction for Major League Soccer is up.
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