Ten years have passed since the United States hosted the World Cup football (soccer) finals. The success of the biggest sports tournament in the world set the foundation for another try at professional football (soccer) in the United States -- Major League Soccer.
The North American Soccer League, the American Soccer League and the Major Indoor Soccer League each tried to popularize professional soccer in the United States. But the leagues ultimately failed to maintain fan interest.
MLS commissioner Don Garber says the early success of his league has silenced its critics.
"The 1994 World Cup was the launching point for what we call the modern era of American soccer," he said. "Few, at that time (when) they heard about the U.S. hosting the event, had faith in our country's ability to produce the world's most popular sports event. And we proved them all wrong."
The 1994 World Cup attracted 3.6 million fans over 52 games in nine cities, including a record 92,000 fans at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California for the final between champion Brazil and Italy.
MLS kicked off in 1996. While it has enjoyed good fan support, the league is just beginning to show signs of growth with two expansion teams in California and Utah. As recently as two years ago, MLS had lost over $300 million and commissioner Don Garber eliminated two Florida franchises to ease the financial burden on the league.
But commissioner Garber says the league is showing positive trends.
"In the past 364 days, we have doubled the size of our investor group. We have stadium projects at various stages in four current Major League Soccer markets," he explained. "We have accelerated the development of dozens of dozens of young American soccer players. And without doubt, we have become the [professional] league of choice for players from the Caribbean and from Central America."
Last year, the Los Angeles Galaxy became the first team in MLS history to post a profit. The Galaxy and the Columbus Crew play in soccer-specific stadiums, and nine cities are in contention for future expansion teams. By 2006, the league expects to have a total of six soccer specific stadiums.
U.S. companies are beginning to place their financial support behind MLS based on studies that state nearly 30 percent of its fans earn more than $150,000 a year. Major sponsors including Budweiser and Pepsi have been with MLS since the start eight years ago.
MLS commissioner Garber says long-term survival will also come from studying the past.
"One of the benefits we have being a new league is we can learn from the mistakes that every other league has made over the last 100 years and at least try to be smart enough not to make those same mistakes," he said.
Perhaps the best news for the long-term success of MLS is the fact that 18 million youngsters are playing soccer in the United States. MLS hopes they will grow up and continue to enjoy the sport as players and fans.