This week marked the 20th anniversary of the first game in MLS history. On April 6, 1996, the San Jose Clash beat DC United 1-0, with United States men’s national team member Eric Wynalda scoring the only goal — thereby delighting league executives, who had feared a stereotype-confirming 0-0 draw.
On the one hand, it was the beginning of the most successful soccer league in American history. On the other, everything from the eye-wateringly ugly jerseys to a laundry list of unnecessary rule departures from traditional soccer made the league look distinctly second-rate. They say there are two sides to every story, and when it comes to the history of MLS, there two ways of looking at everything.
There’s no questioning that MLS has provided 20 years of stability, something American professional soccer had lacked before the league began. But despite having several years to work toward the league’s launch, MLS barely managed to field 10 teams. Focusing on the fact the league still exists after 20 years ignores all of the missteps along the way, like three folded franchises, labor discontent and fan confusion at the league’s ever-shifting Kafkaesque rule book.
MLS has provided a top-level domestic league for players for the U.S. men’s national team (USMNT), giving American players a development outlet that was lacking before the league’s founding. However, USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann is not alone in suggesting that the less-than-world-class play in MLS has actually hindered the development of individual players, for whom MLS is the comfortable, well-paid choice, rather than the most challenging.
MLS has become the fifth major league in American pro sports, with national TV contracts, soccer-specific stadiums and attendance that regularly rivals that of the NHL or NBA. More people are soccer fans in America today than at any other time, and before MLS came around, the game was the butt of jokes rather than being a legitimate major pro sports league. But you could easily argue that MLS is now America’s third-favorite soccer league, behind both Liga MX and the Premier League, both of which outpace the home league in TV viewership. It’s evidence that perhaps MLS is the beneficiary of a growth in American soccer fandom, rather than the cause.
Twenty years after the launch of MLS, has the league been good for American soccer? Yes. And no. Mistakes have abounded, but the league has thrived; it’s better than nothing, but not as good as it could be. The league’s goal of survival has been accomplished, but continued growth, especially on an increasingly crowded international stage will be more difficult. MLS would do well to admit the issues and work on fixing them, rather than insisting that all is well.
SOCCER SHORT TAKES
• The second leg of the Gophers soccer team’s spring schedule is this week, as the women head to Kansas City for two exhibitions with college squads and a 45-minute scrimmage against the NWSL’s FC Kansas City. It will be a good test for the Gophers, who faltered down the stretch last season but have a veteran squad primed for a better season this fall. In their first spring match, the Gophers drew 1-1 with Wisconsin.
• Minneapolis native Mukwelle Akale can add another trophy to his cabinet. The Villarreal youth side, which Akale regularly stars for, won one of seven groups in the Spanish national youth league. Now, Akale and company move on to the national playoffs, in which Villareal is the defending champions.
• On the women’s youth side, Oakdale native Adrienne Richardson, who plays club soccer for Minnesota Thunder Academy, was named to the U.S. U-17 team for a mid-April training camp in California. The U-17s recently qualified for the U-17 World Cup later this fall and have yet to lose a game in 2016.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Bundesliga: Bayern Munich at Stuttgart, 8:30 a.m. Saturday, FS1. Bayern is six games from an unprecedented fourth consecutive German title and has won three matches in a row without allowing a goal. It can’t afford a letup; Borussia Dortmund hasn’t lost since before Christmas and is just five points back. Stuttgart pairs one of the league’s best attacks with perhaps its worst defense.
Bundesliga: Mainz at Wolfsburg, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Ch. 9. Wolfsburg is flying high this week after an unexpected 2-0 win in a Champions League quarterfinal vs. Real Madrid. Mainz, meanwhile, has quietly put together a series of good results in Germany, including wins over Bayern Munich and two of Germany’s other top-five sides. Another big win could put it in the European places.
Serie A: Juventus at AC Milan, 1:45 p.m. Saturday, beIN Sports. There are just seven games to go in the Italian season, and it seems like Juventus is set to pull away from challengers Napoli – thanks to a 21-game unbeaten streak that has included a seemingly impossible 20 victories. Milan, in sixth place, has as good a chance of any team — that is to say, not much — of stopping the run.
Premier League: Manchester United at Tottenham, 10 a.m. Sunday, NBC Sports Network. ManU, in fifth place, has everything to play for yet this year — especially fourth place and a berth in the Champions League. For Tottenham, the club’s best chance for a league title in 50 years seems to be slipping away; Spurs are seven points back with just six games to play.