Throwback Thursdays: The Start of the MLS

Twenty years ago this week, the San Jose Clash hosted DC United in Major League Soccer's inaugural match to kickoff the latest chapter in America's difficult, but colourful, relationship with the Beautiful Game.

For over a hundred years football, or soccer as it's referred to in North America, has been played throughout the United States with varying degrees of success.

In fact, the U.S. Open Cup was founded in 1914 making it the third oldest open cup competition in the world. Strong amateur sides such as Bethlehem Steel F.C., who found great success in that competition, were woven into the history of the game in America, as was the occasional shock result by the U.S. National Team like their 1-0 defeat of England in the 1950 World Cup.

Soccer was very much an amateur spectacle in the US though, paling in comparison to the other major North American sports. The professional North American Soccer League, founded in the late 1960's, was the country's first attempt to remedy that.

But like Icarus that league flew too close to the sun with wax wings.

A combination of bringing in overpriced and aging foreign talent, playing in odd markets, a lack of a solid TV deal and an uncomfortable cocktail of an old world sport mixed with American razzle dazzle sunk the league.

The winding up of the NASL in the early 1980's left the state of soccer in America looking grim. Besides a few scattered amateur leagues, indoor tournaments and college soccer, there was much hope for fans of the game in the U.S.

However, FIFA weren't quite willing to abandon this potentially lucrative market just yet and in 1988 the United States was awarded the hosting rights for the 1994 World Cup under the conditions that a Division 1 professional soccer league was established.

The MLS was the result, and the first season would see ten teams compete for American soccer supremacy.

In a break from the traditions of the majority of leagues around the world, the MLS would feature a playoff tournament after the end of the regular league season to determine a champion. The first season also had a countdown clock, which would be paused for stoppages, and drawn matches would be concluded with shootouts.

Fortunately, besides the playoff structure, these bizarre rules would eventually be dropped.

As for that first match, on 6 April 1996, a terrific late goal from U.S. international Eric Wynalda handed the Clash a 1-0 victory over the eventual league champions DC United.

Over 30,000 took in that first match at San Jose's Spartan Stadium, and although the league has had it's stumbles over the years and continues to have it's detractors, it is firmly established on the North American sporting landscape, with most clubs boasting solid attendance figures while the quality of play in the league continuing to improve.



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