The story of every professional soccer league in American history, bar one, could end with the same sentence: “Faced with mounting costs, uncertain revenue, and team owners giving up, the league was forced to fold.” The exception is Major League Soccer, which avoided that fate by using an ultraconservative business strategy that involves open collusion between teams to keep costs down.
What even MLS die-hards might not remember, though, is that there was a time when MLS was just one of three leagues that might have been America’s first division, competing with one boasting outlandish ideas and another upstart with team-based ownership.
Part of the reason that FIFA awarded the 1994 World Cup to the U.S. was to get a professional league going in America. In 1993, U.S. Soccer, the governing body for soccer in America, decided that it would give only one league its official imprimatur as a first-division league. Eventually, three proposals were considered.
One was a Technicolor, almost avant-garde proposal for League 1 America from an entrepreneur named Jim Paglia, who proposed a zany, circuslike re-imagining of soccer. Two nets at each end, nested inside each other. Extra lines on the field that certain players couldn’t cross. Long-distance goals worth more points. You can only imagine the laughter from the rest of the soccer world had U.S. Soccer gone with Paglia’s proposal. In the end, he wasn’t really taken seriously as he received zero votes.
The other non-MLS proposal, though, was more serious. It came from the American Professional Soccer League (APSL), which was formed in 1990 and had been playing with some success. Despite being plagued by the NASL disease of an ever-changing roster of teams, the APSL had four years of experience running a national soccer league. Teams would have been owned by local owners, not centrally by the league. The MLS group and the APSL group did talk merger, but eventually parted ways over the question of central ownership.
In the end, U.S. Soccer’s board of directors went with MLS by a vote of 18-5. Many felt U.S. Soccer had a thumb on the scales all along. Its president, Alan Rothenberg — who had also run the 1994 World Cup — was the key figure in the new MLS bid, a conflict of interest that eventually led to MLS players suing U.S. Soccer and the league.
Had U.S. Soccer voted for the APSL, it’s possible that today’s American soccer structure would be very different. Without central ownership, teams would be competing like traditional American sports franchises. There probably would be a multi-tier structure with promotion and relegation, like virtually every other country in the world uses to organize its soccer leagues.
Of course, without that conservative strategy, it’s likely that sponsors, broadcasters and local-government stadium partners would have stayed away from the high-risk fledgling league. It would have meant that the APSL — faced with mounting costs, uncertain revenues, and flighty owners — would have been forced to fold.
• It’s early season in England, but Tottenham Hotspur seems like it could struggle this year. The London club’s stadium is under construction, so it’s playing its home games at Wembley Stadium, the England national stadium. Every team naturally will be keyed up to play there, and you have to think that Spurs — so good at home last year — will have more trouble this year. Plus, Tottenham was drawn with Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League group stages and will not be favored to move on to the knockout rounds.
• Sporting Kansas City’s Gianluca Busio, just 15 years old, became the second-youngest signing in MLS history this week. Busio will earn comparisons to the league’s youngest signing ever, famous flameout Freddy Adu. But don’t expect to see Busio on the field for SKC any time soon. This signing is more about KC claiming Busio’s rights in case a foreign club decides to chase him in the future.
• We’re less than a week from the end of the summer transfer window, but the next saga already is heating up: Lionel Messi, the world’s best player, is in the last year of his contract at Barcelona and has not signed a new deal. Expect breathless updates for the next year.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Premier League: Leicester City at Manchester United, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Ch. 11. It’s hard to see how Manchester United could have started the season much better. The Red Devils have a pair of 4-0 victories so far and the look of a team that could cruise to the title.
Bundesliga: Hertha Berlin at Borussia Dortmund, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, FS1. Christian Pulisic wowed for Dortmund in week one, scoring one goal and setting up another on the way to being named the Bundesliga Man of the Matchday. Dortmund opens its home schedule this week. Can Pulisic impress the BVB faithful this week as well?
MLS: Toronto at Montreal, 3:30 p.m. Sunday, ESPN. Toronto is the league’s best team, and some are starting to whisper about whether the Reds should be in the conversation as the best team in MLS history. Meanwhile, Montreal is shooting up the standings. Expect a late-summer Canadian brawl.
MLS: Portland at Seattle, 8:30 Sunday, FS1. The best rivalry in MLS now includes what looks like the Western Conference’s best team, as Seattle keeps rolling. Portland, which should make the playoffs but won’t challenge at the top of the conference, would love to let some air out of Seattle’s tires.