Butler: From humbling beginnings, MLS set to kick off busy 2014

Noel Butler
3/7/2014 7:59:00 PM
Decrease Text SizeIncrease Text Size
Text Size

As Manchester United were edging Manchester City in a five-goal thriller, Juventus were triumphing in the Turin derby and Barcelona squeaked home 1-0 at the Nou Camp, thousands of miles away in California something far more soccer-significant was occurring.

The post-match fireworks were purchased. Final preparations were in place. The FIFA president was in town.

It was April 6, 1996. Spartan Stadium, the home of San Jose State University, was about to play host to the inaugural match in Major League Soccer when the hometown Clash took on D.C. United in front of a sold-out crowd approaching 32,000.

You have to trace it all the way back to American Independence Day, 1988 for when the first MLS seeds were sown. This was the day the US beat back other bids, including one from Brazil, for the rights to host the 1994 World Cup finals.

Those rights came with a caveat, one condition from the world governing body: FIFA mandated the United States Soccer Federation to structure a top-flight league.

Easier said than done.

The year before those 1994 World Cup finals, which eventually would go on to draw a record number of fans, MLS hired its first employee - Mark Abbott. A lawyer by trade, Abbott's soccer connection came via a law colleague, Alan Rothenberg, who was also the president of the USSF.

With Rothenberg appointed as CEO of USA '94, it was left to Abbott to draw up MLS's constitution. Then, in his spare time, Abbott criss-crossed the nation in the search for founding investors.

A total of 10 clubs took part in that inaugural season.  D.C. United, defeated 1-0 during the season opener in San Jose, would eventually go on and be crowned champions when they beat the Los Angeles Galaxy 2-1 in the first MLS Cup.

Saturday afternoon in Seattle, MLS's 19th season gets underway when the Sounders, a club like the Whitecaps celebrating their 40th-anniversary, entertain the current champions, Sporting Kansas City.

To show the measure of how far MLS has journeyed in the intervening years, MLS Cup 1996, which was played in Foxboro, Massachusetts, attracted a crowd of just over 35,000. Today, the Sounders claim that same amount of supporters in season ticket holders.

This is not to say that MLS has not had its share of let downs and disappointments. The league's worst moment happened just ahead of the 2002 season with contraction occurring and gone were the Miami Fusion and the Tampa Bay Mutiny.

Long gone, though, are the days MLS teams were merely tenants in NFL buildings - begging their landlords to go easy on the rent and allow them access to the stadiums to play matches on days and at a time of day which were most preferable to attracting in the fans the league so desperately needed.

Like all sports teams who look to build on the previous season's accomplishments, MLS will, as well, in 2014.  
Nobody needs reminding that we are in a World Cup year and the momentum those previous tournaments have provided the league.

As it did for South Africa 2010, MLS will shut down for the opening fortnight of group games this June. During this time, the league has mandated each of its clubs, along with the players to be active in their communities.

One of Toronto FC's newest designated players, Jermain Defoe, was part of England's squad for their World Cup warm-up friendly against Denmark at Wembley in midweek. You can be guaranteed that, come the conclusion of Brazil 2014, a number of other players will make the transition to MLS.

The most famous of the class of South Africa 2010 to do just that was Thierry Henry, who went into that World Cup still a Barcelona player. Three days after the World Cup final, Henry was introduced as a member of the New York Red Bulls (who visit the Whitecaps on Saturday, live on TSN at 7:30pm et/4:30pm pt).

This year is also a pivotal one for soccer in Canada and not just for our three MLS clubs. In January, the Canadian Soccer Association announced it will bid to host the 2026 World Cup finals. In August, we host the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup finals and, in April, the Ottawa Fury kick off their inaugural NASL campaign.

As for our three MLS clubs, Toronto FC have set the bar awfully high. Whilst they sit out the opening weekend's fixtures and have a final week of preparation before opening their season in Seattle next Saturday, nothing short of a playoff berth will suffice.

With new head coaches at the helm in Vancouver and Montreal, expectations are less lofty. The so-called opinion makers across the league have already written off their chances to make the post-season. However, that's on paper and we all know matches are won and lost on the pitch. Flying under the radar could work to their advantage.

As MLS has blossomed and flourished over the years, it has given rise to allow the soccer-playing kids right across North America to dream and believe that they, one day, can fulfil their childhood ambitions.

Tell Patrice Bernier when he was a prospect in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League that one day he would share a flight with the 1993 Stanley Cup-winning captain of the Montreal Canadiens, Guy Carbonneau.

The Impact left for Dallas yesterday morning where they open their season on Saturday night. Bernier is now the captain of a club that just so happen to play in one of the best attended leagues in all of world football.

Then, share a thought for Matt Besler, who will lead the MLS Cup holders Sporting KC out onto the pitch in Seattle on Saturday afternoon.

During that inaugural MLS season in 1996, Sporting KC were known as the Kansas City Wiz. Playing their matches out of the NFL Chiefs' Arrowhead Stadium , where a nine-year-old Besler served as a ballboy.

You can reach and follow Noel Butler at:  and @TheSoccerNoel on Twitter

Noel Butler

Noel Butler

Noel Butler is an analyst for TSN's soccer coverage and his blog can be read on You can follow him on Twitter at and listen to his radio program oranges@halftime on TSN Radio 690 Montreal.


TSN 1050: Leafs Lunch: Hour 1 - March 31

Leafs Lunch is joined by TSN Leafs Reporter Mark Masters.

TSN 690: oranges at halftime: Frank Klopas: Sept. 18

Following Wednesday night's Champions League win, we catch up with the Impact's Head Coach

TSN 690: oranges at halftime: Tommy Smyth: Sept. 18

We recap the UEFA Champions League Matchday 1 and sneak a peak at Tommy's legendary prediction ways.

More Podcasts

Follow Us!

There's a new Twitter feed that will make you a real insider! Follow to get updates on the latest blogs, best videos and more!

More about TSN on Twitter...

Cabbie on

New York-bred hip hop artist Action Bronson discusses his friendship with Kevin Love, his jumpshot, Mike Napoli's beard, obscure sports references and Derek Jeter's Brand Jordan commercial. More...

He has speed in his DNA, learn more about Olympic champion Donovan Bailey's nephew, Jaden and his success on the gridiron in the latest Powerade 24. More...

© 2017
All rights reserved.
Bell Media Television