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by Dean Mitchell

ajor League Soccer is now 25 years old. It’s far and away the best effort at establishing the game in North America.

Significantly, MLS has brought the game out of a perennial survival mode—something no other league before it could say.

All of our major Sports Leagues had growing pains. MLS is light years ahead of where the NBA, NFL, NHL etc. were at 25 years of age. There are over 15 Soccer specific stadiums across the USA and Canada and another 6 under construction. MLS Franchises are going for $300 million as the expansion era is coming to a close.

North American soccer was long described as an alphabet soup of failed leagues. Rightly so, every single attempt at pro soccer had failed. The jury was out if the sport would ever survive (let alone thrive).

Young soccer fans in the US and Canada don’t realize how good they have it, having grown up with an intact league as long as they can remember. Love it or hate it, MLS has always been there for you. My generation got hooked on the game only to have the rug pulled out from under us. I was 25 when the NASL went belly up in 1985 and it sucked. 7 years later, the MISL folded too (Indoor, but another soccer epic collapse).

The Soccer Graveyard kept growing as every attempt to create a top-flight league failed. The USA, APSL, WSA, WSL, A-League all filled in as best they could, mainly run by soccer people with their hearts in the right place—but no deep pockets. Soccer “nerds” like me were scoffed at for following a “bush-league sport that will never make it”. Don’t even ask about getting a game on TV or to get a bartender to switch to a game from a “real sport”.

During the “Dark Ages Era” (’85-’95) there were definitely some success stories along the way but in the end—they all failed at establishing a fifth major league sport. Efforts to revitalize NASL brands would ultimately give teams like the Timbers, Rowdies, Sounders, Whitecaps and Earthquakes legacies lasting over 40 years—the dream never really died in these NASL strongholds.

By the 1996 Launch of MLS the consensus was: “If the upstart league failed, the sport would never succeed here”. Certainly another big-time attempt would be decades away. After a splashy inaugural year, MLS settled into a slow downward spiral and even briefly folded in 2001—only to be revived the next day. By this point, Philip Anschutz owned and operated 7 of the 10 franchises—sustaining the league for half a decade. Had Anschutz gotten hit by a bus or lost interest, we certainly wouldn’t be celebrating MLS’s 25th Anniversary.

We’d be served up with, well, more Alphabet soup.