US Soccer History 5
Continued from Page 4
US soccer history generously reposted on my website, courtesy of Dave Litterer
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The indoor soccer wars were starting to take their toll by now. The MISL was increasingly challenged by a growing AISA and to ward off further losses of star players, raised salaries significantly. Although this helped them keep most of the better players, it took a big hit at the bottom line, despite their unprecedented success on the field. The league was hugely popular, with good television contracts, players on the national team, and frequent crowds of more than 10,000. The St. Louis Steamer, in particular was a major success story, with sold out crowds, fan promotions, spectacular multimedia displays and the like. They succeeded through creating an EVENT, not just playing a match. Their tactics were a precursor to those for indoor soccer in general, and more significantly, for many of the types of successful promotions in other established US sports, particularly baseball, with the elaborate new stadiums full of family-friendly events, promotions and activities that provide an entire day's worth of entertainment for the budget-conscious families of the 1980's. The AISA, although lacking the major stars, was a more viable institution, through aggressive cost cutting and careful financial controls. Despite their generally lower profile, (attendance averaged less than 4,000 into the early 1990's), they avoided the financial pitfalls that eventually consumed the MISL. By 1988, the MISL was in severe financial straits, and nearly folded. The league did survive, but lost many of its strongest franchises, including Chicago Sting (a veteran of the NASL), Cleveland Force (an original franchise), the St. Louis Steamer (their greatest success story), Tacoma, and Minnesota (another NASL survivor). They did continue with seven teams and a shortened season, but were never the same after that, and finally the MISL folded in 1992. The NPSL, by contrast, despite having lost four teams from a premature expansion two years back, continued their slow, incremental growth, signing some of the stars from the MISL teams who folded, and for the first time started expanding out of their Midwestern stronghold, and re-establishing themselves in Chicago, their major TV market.
The US National Team surprised the world by qualifying for the 1990 World Cup in 1989 by upsetting Trinidad & Tobago while on the brink of elimination with an amazing victory at Trinidad. This team of underdog players from the ASL, WSL, MISL and USSF Development Program, may have been lucky more than anything else, especially considering their mediocre 1988 Olympic Performance (2 draws and 1 loss, albeit one draw was against host South Korea). They had tied many of their qualifying games, and been able to avoid playing Mexico altogether, which certainly would have doomed their effort. The team prepared for the cup with an impressive series of games in the spring of 1990 including victories against Finland, Iceland, and Poland. The most eagerly anticipated game was against the Soviet Union, which drew 61,000 to Palo Alto CA, for a close 2-1 loss. The cup itself showed the US as basically outmatched, however they nearly forced a draw with host Italy, only allowing a goal late in the game, nearly tying the game in the 70th minute. Such an upset would have been stunning had the US been able to keep the tie. The other losses (1-5 vs. Czechoslovakia and 1-2 vs. Austria) were less impressive.
In 1991, Bora Milutinovic was hired to coach the US team, and he immediately embarked on a program to develop a playing style relying heavily on a tenacious, controlled defense, an area which had long been neglected. During his tenure, the US began to win more games than ever before, and increasingly, against fairly impressive competition. The team consisted mostly of players contracted full-time to USSF, and Milutinovic launched the team on an extensive schedule of Internationals against other countries. The US drew against Mexico in March, and won the inaugural Gold Cup, the North American championship, held that year in California. The final was a close fought affair against Honduras, a game forced into penalty kicks after a scoreless draw. Previously the US had beaten Mexico in the semifinals. Meanwhile, the US achieved a world class accomplishment which went sadly overlooked, their taking of the championship at the 1991 Women's World Cup.
The outdoor game in 1992 saw the consolidation of the APSL, and the expansion of the SISL outdoor league into a 21-team league with a new name, the United States Interregional Soccer League (USISL). At the same time, issue of the future 1st Division League grew ever more contentious as different groups fought and vied for the honor. The APSL, led by Richard Groff, the USISL, led by Francisco Marcos, and even the MISL Indoor league, all lay claims to being the premier soccer league most suited to rise to the top, and these were joined by Rothenberg's own plans for a new league. The fight over FIFA designation revolved around several factors. Beyond the personal issues between the various parties, were differing philosophies about the best way to grow soccer, from a top down well financed method favored by the Rothenberg group to a bottom-up grassroots method, favored by the APSL and USISL parties, or the claim by the MISL to be the highest profile league in existence at the time. Unfortunately, the fight led to many conflicts with leagues working to undercut each other, which led to more setbacks than anything else for the cause of US Soccer. Eventually, the Rothenberg group prevailed, on the basis of promises of investor capital, sponsorships and good prospects of television deals. Their new league was then christened Major League Soccer.
The US National team played their most ambitious year ever in 1993, with 34 games played that year, ranging from the new USA Cup (with games against Germany, and Brazil, and another shot heard 'round the world, a 2-0 upset of England), the Gold Cup '93, with four straight victories followed by a 4-0 loss to Mexico in the championship before 120,000 in Mexico, the largest crowd ever to watch the US team. This year also saw a series of exhibitions against major world teams dubbed the "World Series of Soccer". Primarily designed to provide playing experience, this series included games against Germany, Brazil and England (also serving as the USA Cup), Columbia, Russia (doubleheader), and Denmark. Although the US went 1-2-4, they drew impressive crowds for these games, providing hope for the future MLS. The schedule got even busier early in 1994 as preparations were completed for the World Cup. The final game of the warm-up was a thrilling 1-0 victory over Mexico two weeks before the World Cup. This game was played before 92,504 fans, most of them Mexican.
The 1994 World Cup was, simply put, the biggest event ever in American soccer. All eyes were on the US to see if they were capable of hosting a world class event, and from an organizational viewpoint, it far exceeded even the most optimistic expectations, drawing a record 3,600,000 spectators, and averaging a record 67,000 per game, almost double the average attendance for the recent 1982 World Cup. Even better, the competition provided some of the most exciting games in the series, although this was tempered somewhat by the lackluster finale, which had to be decided by penalty kicks. The USSF Training Program had paid off, with the US giving a respectable performance, which took them beyond the first round for the first time since 1930, holding #1 Brazil to a scoreless tie into the 70th minute of their Round of 16 Game. They accomplished this with a tenacious defense that held the opponents to 4 goals in 4 games. The event garnered unprecedented press coverage in the American Media, and though the naysayers vented their disparagement towards the game, many other people discovered the game for the first time, and were primed for the arrival of Major league Soccer two years down the road. The naysayers also were denied their day when their hoped for hooliganism and violence failed to materialize; in fact there was not once incident of serious violence during the entire cup. Finally, several US players became household names through their feats and performances, including Tab Ramos, Cobi Jones, Eric Wynalda, Claudio Reyna, Alexi Lalas and others. Finally, major American Soccer players were recognized in the streets and by the mainstream sports audience.
After the Cup, came the business of preparing the National team for the next step, and putting together Major League Soccer. The first step was taken by the USSF which, sensing the American offensive weaknesses, sacked Milutinovic, and hired Steve Sampson as the new head coach. Sampson was assigned to build on the defensive core that Milutinovic had built, and fortify it with a powerful, attacking offensive capability.
By 1995, there were major changes occurring throughout all aspects of US Soccer. The National team had sent out upon a program of building on the world cup success and preparing for the next step. Major League Soccer set about the task of securing owner investors, sponsors and television contracts and signing players. The APSL, now retitled the A-league won recognition from FIFA as the United States' Division 2 league, and the USISL won designation as the third division league. With Major League Soccer recognized as the 1st division league, the USA finally had a working divisional system for the professional game. More importantly, the leagues finally decided to work together and cooperate in maintaining this system. The A-League and USISL worked out an agreement to act as a farm system for the MLS, and the MLS reached an agreement with the indoor NPSL regarding scheduling seasons and sharing of players. Avoiding the future women's basketball disaster, players were allowed to compete in both outdoor and indoor seasons. For once, the different major soccer powers were not fighting and trying to undercut each other. Only the two-year-old indoor Continental Indoor Soccer League (CISL) was on its own, but it kept largely to itself and did not try to interfere with the overall cooperation. The A-League was a small, unwieldy league with 7 teams spread across the entire country and Canada, but the USISL, which had committed itself to the bottom-up grassroots development strategy now had 85 teams in small to medium sized cities nationwide, and had split itself into professional and amateur divisions. The amateur division is known among fans as an unofficial "4th division".
The College game had been growing steadily, and was one of the largest college varsity sports. This was most evident in the rapid and sudden growth of women's college soccer. The women's game was really starting to come into its own both at the collegiate level and with the women's team (despite the disappointing 1995 World Cup final loss to Norway). This resulted in the USISL establishing a national women's league, which rapidly grew to over thirty teams, eventually splitting into elite and amateur divisions.
Major League Soccer established a unique single entity corporate structure with teams managed by Investors, existing as separate franchises, but with all player signings and salaries managed by the central league office that also handled player allocations and approved trades. This proved critical in the formative stages as the league ensured parity in the initial team lineup. The owner investors invested to the tune of $75,000,000, which was designed to cover expected operating losses for the first five seasons of the league. Ten corporate sponsors were signed up, and television contracts were signed with ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and Univision. To promote the development of American players, the teams had a limit of five foreigners per team, and 15 Americans. In addition, there was a salary cap of $1,250,000 per team and a maximum player salary of $175,000 (excepting sponsorship deals with 4 allocated marquee players per team). This ensured Americans would have adequate playing time to develop their talent and avoid the mistakes of the NASL with regard to spiraling salaries for foreigners with Americans warming the bench. The MLS signed marquee players and held tryouts for others, establishing a signee list of over 250 players when the February 1996 draft took place. This player pool was a mixture of foreign stars, US National team players (The USSF Training program was shut down, to be replaced by MLS), US stars playing abroad and in the A-League, as well as other A-League players, USISL players, a few amateurs, and some indoor veterans from the NPSL and CISL. In addition, a collegiate draft was held as well as a supplemental free-agent draft after the draft from the Player Pool. Overall, the quality of players signed was better than many had expected, with a surprising majority of national team members signed to the league. This included many who had been able to land playing positions overseas as a result of their reputation and World Cup performances.
The National Team played a series of exhibitions, before having an amazing performance during the summer, winning the US Cup against very strong opponents, and then stunning the world by making it to the semifinals in the Copa America, defeating Argentina 3-1, Mexico 1-0, and nearly tying World Cup champion Brazil (who ultimately won 1-0). Argentina had foolishly rested some of their starters, expecting the US game to be a cakewalk. This upset showed the world the Americans were to be taken seriously. This triumph led to Steve Sampson being named permanent coach, and he had turned in the best performance ever for an American born coach, putting to rest the myth than Americans were incapable of bringing coaching success to the national level.
The Internet became a major factor in American Soccer at this time. Netizens took to the internet early and congregated in newsgroups, email lists, and web pages sharing information, collecting statistics and creating informational forums to counteract the dearth of soccer coverage in the media. This year also saw the birth of the first supporters club for the national team. The idea actually took root during the 1994 world cup when three fans at the 1994 world cup were accidentally introduced when Mark Wheeler, a doctoral student at Carnegie-Mellon, spilled his soda on Marc Spacone, a coach at SUNY-Buffalo, who was with his friend John Wright. The three of them got to talking and bemoaned the fact that even on their home turf, the team had to face stadium crowds that were mostly rooting for their opposition, an effect of the still strong ethnic component of the game in the US. They hatched the idea of a club whose members would go to all national team home games, sit together with logo shirts, drums, instruments, songs and cheers, and work to develop a strong tradition of American fans wildly supporting the American team in the European tradition (minus the hooliganism and poor sportsmanship). The club was conceptualized, organized and promoted on the soccer internet groups, and Sam's Army was born. Their first game, the beginning of the US Cup 1995 was a resounding success, and Sam's Army has appeared at every game since, with crowds ranging as high as 900 for a game. Sam's Army now has over 5,000 members nationwide, and even overseas.
1996 was the year of Major league Soccer, which had a very successful first year. Although it was clear soccer had a long way to go, the league drew much better than expected, quality of play was above predictions and fan response was enthusiastic, and financial losses were less than expected. The MLS's financially conservative approach had paid off. The USISL established a Select league of top teams with the intent to petition FIFA for 2nd division status, which was provisionally approved. After the season they changed their approach, and instead merged the select league with the A-League, taking in A-League teams and the league name along with FIFA's recognition. This was also the year for the Olympics, hosted by Atlanta. Although the men didn't do as well as hoped, the women's team won the inaugural Olympic Women's Soccer competition with unprecedented crowds, including 76,000 for the final, demonstrating emphatically that the women's sport was coming of age at the top levels. This success gave the US organizing team (which had won the rights to host the 1999 world cup) leverage to force FIFA to agree to have the event be a full-fledged affair in large stadiums coast to coast, rather than the low-key regional affair preferred by the FIFA old guard. Meanwhile, World Cup '98 qualification was underway, and the US won a spot in November 1977, with a convincing win over Canada. This was the first time since 1989 the US had qualified without help (Mexico had been disqualified for using illegal players). This helped silence the naysayers, as the US would have qualified even if the North American region hadn't received a third allocation.
The following year was mixed for US soccer. The National team gave a very disappointing World Cup performance against very tough competition, but the real reason for the losses was dissension between players and coach Sampson, leading to his resignation and some unhappy players. MLS struggled with falling attendance and flat TV ratings, but the quality of play had improved substantially in each season, and the two new teams, in Chicago and Miami did very well. On the developmental front, the USSF established a new A-League team, US Pro 40, which consisted of the best of the college and ODP recruits, would play together to develop skills and be the cream o the new talent for the MLS and ultimately the National team. This was established in tandem with the new USSF Project 2010, designed to build the National team to the point where they can compete for the World Cup championship. US Pro 40 had a surprisingly good debut year, and even better year in 1999, and was very effective in promoting players to the MLS (All Project 40 players were signed by MLS teams). This ambitious plan, although possibly overoptimistic did indeed provide finally a comprehensive development plan for soccer at multiple levels, and a true blueprint for the development of the National team. Meanwhile, an abortive attempt to launch a women's professional league, the National Soccer Alliance failed, but did provide inspiration, and caused the USISL to seriously consider a plan for eventually turning their elite division into a fully professional league.
The year 1999 had many major success stories, but above all, this was the year for Women's soccer. The buildup for the 1999 Women's World Cup had gone better than the best expectations, and the US tore up the opposition on their "road to the cup". The team connected with youth players and the general public as no other had ever done, and attracted an entire new female audience to the game. More importantly, they did so with a heavy dose of altruism, good sportsmanship, respect for the audience, professionalism and skill that is sadly lacking in so many of professional sports these days. They not only provided inspiring role models for young girls, but also more importantly to young boys, who looked across the gender divide to see a moral example truly worth following. The cup in short was the greatest women's sporting event ever, garnering unprecedented world attention, averaging 38,000 fans per game (even surpassing the 1982 MEN's World Cup), and providing a world-class level of performance. Not only by the US, but also by many other countries, the elite level of women's soccer has simply been exploding as a large number of countries developed to a world-class status. In 1995, at most 6-7 teams were world class, in this cup, almost the entire 16-team field deserved to be there. With the large pool of nations rapidly developing their programs, the world-class roster should be at least thirty nations by 2003, and the World Cup field may need to be expanded. Michelle Akers, Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Brianna Scurry, and many others become household names this year. Some hold world career records and are still in their prime. The US U-17 team had an impressive performance in the U-17 world championship, making it to the semifinals. This was a very positive sign, as it showed the first fruits of the Project 40 and Project 2010 efforts, and the payoff was coming even more quickly than hoped with several bonafide stars making their presence felt. Finally, the MLS D. C. United won the CONCACAF champions cup and defeated Vasco de Gama of Brazil in the Confederations Cup.
Elsewhere, it was a period of consolidation, and more importantly, finally, stability. The MLS held their own, renewed sponsors, and TV contracts, and the USISL (Now renamed USL - United Soccer Leagues), solidified their three divisional leagues (A-league, D3Po League and Premier Developmental League), expanded their women's leagues and launched a new nationwide Youth league (Meanwhile their Indoor division was silent for the first time since 1986). Good signs included several very successful new franchises in major cities, expansion of the amateur Premier league to the Northeast, expansion of the farm club system with MLS, and raising franchise standards to weed out weak teams. For the first time ever, the top league in the US had gone four straight years without losing or moving a franchise. The US Soccer Hall of Fame opened an amazing new high-tech exhibition building which includes interactive games, internet-based records, player bios and data, voluminous displays, meeting spaces, and climate-controlled archives rooms and will soon house indoor soccer fields to go with its large outdoor soccer campus which is a major venue for tournaments. New leadership was the watchword at all levels, as FIFA, the USSF, MLS, and the three USL Leagues all got new directors/presidents. It is expected that this new blood will enhance the innovations and development necessary for the game to keep on the road towards becoming the pre-eminent sport in the United States. Finally, the National Soccer Hall of Fame opened their new museum building in Oneonta, NY, providing a first-class showcase for the greats of US soccer history.
At the turn of the Millennium, there were more developments, most of them good. Major League Soccer finally found its focus under leadership of new commissioner Don Garber. He initiated changes to bring the league in line with world standards, allowing ties after overtime, adopting the international game clock with time kept by the referee, and greatly expanded the league's marketing efforts while also making a final push to find investors for the remaining league-operated teams. Although attendance continued to lag, now finally concrete steps were being taken to ensure the long-term survival of the league. USL continued a period of consolidation in its Division 2 circuit, creating a stronger, more compact league. Finally, in the 2000-2001 interregnum, one could for the first time see some true stability; almost no teams folded at this level, while several more dropped to more appropriate levels. All USL leagues showed increased attendance.
The US Men's team had their best performance ever in the 2000 Olympics, moving out of pool play for the first time, and nearly winning the bronze. This was another watershed of a sort, being the first time that players with MLS experience would participate, and the successful performance showed MLS in a very good light. The women would see the steadily increasing competition among other nations and were forced to settle for the Silver. In another first, the Los Angeles Galaxy qualified for the World Club Championship, by defeating Olimpia of Honduras in the CONCACAF Champions Cup.
The period from 2001-2004 saw a number of positive developments for the American game. The Women’s United Soccer Association was launched in 2001, and immediately established itself as the premier women’s league in the world. Their rosters included virtually all of the National Team players who were not still in college, as well as a goodly portion of the top international stars. The league did better than expected at the gate, and although the early games showed the typical struggles of a new league, quality of play rapidly increased. The WUSA continued to provide first class women’s soccer for three seasons, but took on enormous financial losses. This combined with disappointing TV ratings and lack of sponsor revenue led the league to suspend operations shortly after the 2003 season, although the league arranged a series of exhibitions for 2004, with hopes to re-launch in 2005.
The National youth teams had disappointing runs in 2001, but both did better in 2003, getting well out of the qualifying rounds at the 2003 youth championships. A somewhat bitter event was the Olympic team’s failure to qualify for the 2004 Olympics. But the big story was the Men’s National team and their performance at the 2002 World Cup, in which they came 1 goal short of making the final four, in a close loss to #3 ranked Germany, after defeating Mexico in the Round of 16. The Women unexpectedly got to host the 2003 World Cup after the games were moved out of China due to the SARS crisis. The tournament was a big success again, although on a more modest scale than in 1999, but like with the Olympics, the US felt the effects of the rapidly improving women’s game, losing in the semifinals.
Major League Soccer continued to make slow but steady improvements, with a marked improvement in attendance in 2002, and steadily improving quality of play. They focused less on attracting international stars, and more on developing younger players. Although Project-40 withdrew from the A-League, it continued to find success as a means for tagging top prospects, several of which went onto major success in the league and with the national team. A substantial portion of the US World Cup squad consisted of MLS players, and their performance made the world take MLS seriously as a quality league. After the World Cup, MLS increasingly became a launching point for American players who would move to prestigious European clubs, and quite often, make a major impact there. Tim Howard became the starting goalkeeper for Manchester United, and the 2004 season would see the debut of 14-year old Freddy Adu, the youngest player ever to debut in a US pro soccer league. Several developments pointed to long-term strength for MLS, as more investor took control of league teams with expansion franchises tentatively awarded to Cleveland and San Diego for 2005. The league also signed a five year TV contract in 2001. Finally, a first class soccer-specific stadium opened in Los Angeles in 2003, with other stadiums confirmed or in proposal stages at Dallas, Chicago and New York.
The Indoor game saw some consolidation as the NPSL morphed into the new single-entity Major Indoor Soccer League II, eventually absorbing the World Indoor Soccer League, and beginning a renaissance in 2004. A new phenomenon was launched in 2003, with a highly successful tour by Manchester United and several other top European clubs. Although not sponsored by MLS, the tour saw sellout crowds at some of the largest US Stadiums, leading MLS to set up tours of their own in 2004. The USL saw continued consolidation with increasing strength in their 2nd Division A-League, and great expansion in their Super Y-League. Increasingly, MLS clubs established reserve squads who played in USL’s amateur division.
Overall, as 2004 progressed, there were a number of positive directions being taken at all levels of US soccer, particularly steps to ensure the long-term viability of the game.