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#FirstKick in MLS; a quickie history lesson about a league that almost wasn’t

Chicago Fire v Portland Timbers

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 14: Portland Timbers fans stand in the pouring rain as they cheer before the start of the teams home opening game at Jeld-Wen Field on April 14, 2011 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

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One day away from MLS first kick seems like the perfect time for a very quick Major League Soccer history lesson.

We recently passed a 10-year anniversary that no one around MLS really cared to celebrate. It was one everyone would simply prefer to forget. “Just move along folks; nothing to see here.”

I wrote about this at a former blog. But since that is dead and buried*, here’s the essence: Major League Soccer was deadly close 10 years ago to closing down. Most supporters probably don’t know how close.

We were this close to watching domestic soccer devolve back to something that would have resembled the bad old days of the early 1990s, when professional soccer was truly reduced to outlier status. Back then there were indoor leagues and shards of pro soccer in a few markets, competing in what is now officially designated as the second-tier. But if we’re being honest, to use baseball as an example, that’s more akin to AA or AAA than to “The Show.”

So thank goodness for MLS. Only, we almost didn’t have it.

Here, in a nutshell, is what MLS looked like 10 years ago:

The spiritual and cultural DNA of our country was changing in the weeks and months following 9/11. And who knew what would come of the economy?

Major League Soccer had just reduced itself to 10 teams. On Jan. 8, 2002, commissioner Don Garber and the league’s (tiny) board of directors made the painful decision to severe the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion. It was amputating a leg to save the man.

Remember, this was smack in the middle of massive financial suffering in MLS. The league lost $350 million between founding in 1996 and 2004. The hemorrhaging fell almost exclusively on just three major investors.

As such, there was real talk of folding the entire operation. It was a well-kept secret back then, but word has come out since that ceasing operations was a legitimate option on the table.

Contraction, painful though it was, and despite the obvious PR blow, was an essential part of the reconstruction plan. The thinking went something like this: “We simply cannot go forward under status quo. We can shut down. And maybe we should. Or we can push forward – but there must be changes, because this isn’t working.”

So a 10-team league slogged forward – and if we’re being honest, 10 teams is barely a league.

Conventional wisdom in many circles devolved into something like this: if MLS is hacking and whacking teams, down to such a puny sum of clubs, can the end be far behind?

That was just 10 years ago.

And yet, look where things have come from there: There are 19 teams now, and attendance keeps climbing steadily forward. Sellouts in Seattle, Portland, Philadelphia and elsewhere are the norm.

This evolution is even more stunning: There was but one lone stadium 10 years ago built specifically for MLS back then. Now there are 14, with the latest coming on-line this year in Houston. TV contracts are providing reasonable revenue and still moving in the right direction. NBC Sports Network will air 38 regular-season games this year, while NBC shows three. Locally, the L.A. Galaxy’s new 10-year regional television deal with Time Warner, for a whopping $55 million, looks like a real game-changer.

No, things aren’t perfect. But I sometimes bristle when I hear complaints about MLS operations, about budgets, about certain personalities at MLS headquarters. Not because they need defending, but because these things always need to rooting in context and just a little bit of historical understanding.

Personally, I look at domestic soccer and think it has settled into a pretty good place.

(* I wrote very close to the same thing on my old, personal blog. But since that thing was apparently terminated with extreme prejudice by the tech crunchers, with all evidence apparently scrubbed from existence, with no internet linkage possible, this post is a partially resurrected version.)