The State of the League address

sports or otherwise -- in our nation's history.

The 1994 World Cup was the launching point for the modern era of American soccer. Few had faith in this country's ability to produce the world's most popular sports event.

They were wrong.

Nearly 3.6 million fans across nine cities attended the 52 games -- reaching 96 percent capacity -- including a record 92,000 for the Brazil-Italy final at the Rose Bowl -- demonstrating our nation's growing appetite for the passion and excitement of the world's game.

The attendance records set by the 1994 World Cup USA remain to this day, smashing the previous World Cup in Italy by three times.

The '94 World Cup also proved to the world that Americans can play this game. Our World Cup team -- the group that we are honoring tomorrow -- advanced to the final 16, a first for a U.S. squad since 1930.

On July 4, our young team went toe-to-toe with the eventual world champion, Brazil, and truly earned the respect of the soccer world. Despite the loss to the eventual champions, Soccer had become a national sensation, and the USA embraced its soccer icons.

As you know, the World Cup left behind a legacy to grow the sport here for generations. The profits from the tournament helped create the U.S. Soccer Foundation and provided funding for many important initiatives for the sport, including Major League Soccer.

The tournament's Chairman, Alan Rothenberg, founded MLS along with key staff members Sunil Gulati, the league's first Deputy Commissioner; Mark Abbott, our current Chief Operating Officer and our current Deputy Commissioner, Ivan Gazidis. Current US Soccer Secretary General Dan Flynn was a venue director in Chicago, just one of dozens of people currently in key positions throughout the Federation, MLS teams, CONCACAF, FIFA, and a variety of soccer entities who worked for the '94 World Cup Organizing Committee.

In short, FIFA granted the 1994 World Cup to the United States to help grow the sport in this country. And without doubt, Joao Havelange's and Sepp Blatter's vision was fulfilled.

In the decade that has followed we've seen the launch of two professional soccer leagues, the construction of three -- and soon to be six -- soccer specific stadiums, increased media and broadcast coverage nationally and locally, a 25% explosion of participation at all levels and an exponential rise in the number of games domestically and internationally that are available on broadcast and cable television.

So to recognize the historical significance of the '94 World Cup to soccer in the United States, we are bringing together a few of the guys who played on the '94 World Cup squad -- a group that was playing in college or in Europe and came together to represent our country in the world's biggest sports event.

But they did more than just play for the red, white and blue. They stayed home and helped launch Major League Soccer. Their actions will be written in the annals of the history of our sport. Two players, Eric Wynalda and Paul Caligiuri, have just been elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta, N.Y. Alexi Lalas, Tab Ramos and Marcelo Balboa enjoyed standout careers in MLS and have retired. Tony Meola, Cobi Jones and Earnie Stewart are more than just still playing; they are guiding their MLS squads to this year's playoffs.

Tomorrow, members of the '94 World Cup team will play against a team of international players whose contributions to Major League Soccer helped establish the viability, credibility and popularity of our league at the most important time in our history.

What would Major League Soccer be today without Carlos Valderrama, Marco Etcheverry, Mauricio Cienfuegos, Raul Diaz Arce and Peter Nowak?

When these guys stepped on the field, you knew something magical could happen, and it often did. They weren't just great players, they were leaders on the field. They had a special relationship with our fans and they will be forever remembered as the first group of international players since the NASL, that fans would truly pay to see.

We greatly appreciate all they have done to help grow the sport in the United States and they will forever be written into the history books for their contributions to Major League Soccer. On behalf of all of us involved with MLS -- from our fans, to our owners to our partners, I want to thank them for their contributions to the sport in America.

Before I share with you the customary "State of the League" address, I want to take a step back and reflect on how far this sport has come since the 1994 World Cup and since MLS was launched in 1996.

Thanks to the young men (maybe not so young!) here today, to our committed investors, sponsors, and media partners, we have truly become A SOCCER NATION. When the critics and skeptics ask about world-class players, passionate fans, hallowed homes and the like, we answer "IT'S RIGHT HERE."

It's in our stadiums. It's on our fields. It's on our broadcasts and most importantly, it's through our passionate fans who care about our players, our teams and the sport.

Next season we will recognize the 25 millionth fan who will pass through our turnstiles. We have hundreds of games on national television. We have active and involved corporate partners. We have game coverage, television highlights, beat writers and columns in newspapers nationwide. We have our own soccer facilities, with many more to come.

So, what kind of year has it been for Major League Soccer?

Well, in the last 364 days, we've doubled the size of our investor group, we have stadium projects at various stages in four current MLS markets, we've finalized agreements to add two new teams to MLS in 2005, and we've accelerated the development of several young American players and have become the league of choice for the top talent in Central America and the Caribbean.

Through our marketing company, Soccer United Marketing, we helped host the 2003 Women's World Cup. We created and managed the prestigious InterLiga Copa Libertadores qualifying tournament for Mexican Club teams. We have secured the marketing rights to the U.S. national teams and promoted dozens of international soccer matches, included several near sell-outs with the Mexican national team, Argentina, Columbia and Peru.

Only three weeks ago, we welcomed our latest investor group, Sports Capital Partners to the MLS family. Led by distinguished sports executive David W. Checketts, Salt Lake City emerged from a number of potential expansion cities as the 12th MLS team. We are very excited about expanding further in the Mountain States and are bringing pro soccer to a city known for it's loyal and committed fan base, large youth soccer market and rapidly growing ethnic community.

On Monday we will unveil the details surrounding the Los Angeles-based expansion team owned by Jorge Vergara, the owner of legendary Mexican club Chivas as well as Costa Rican power Saprissa.

I know the addition of a second team to an existing market took many by surprise, especially as we remain aggressive on expanding Major League Soccer's footprint across this country, but the power of the Chivas concept combined with a jewel of a stadium in The Home Depot Center allows us to create the league's first true "derby," a rivalry that will quickly create unparalleled excitement in the largest Hispanic market in the United States.

We are committed to adding at least two additional teams to MLS in the near future. As I've said many times before, we will only expand at the right time, under the right circumstances and with the key elements of ownership, stadium plans, fan base and local sponsorship in place.

Speaking of stadiums, when the founders of MLS created the original plan, it included teams playing in their own soccer specific stadiums. It took three years for the first -- when Lamar Hunt built Columbus Crew Stadium -- and four more years until AEG built The Home Depot Center.

Next year, we will open our first youth and professional soccer complex in Frisco, Texas, the new home for the Dallas Burn, North Texas Soccer and the United States Youth Soccer Association.

Earlier this year, we announced public-private partnership deals for the Chicago Fire in Bridgeview, Ill., and for the MetroStars in Harrison, N.J. This past Tuesday, we announced a $135 million public-private partnership between the Kroenke Sports Group and the Denver suburb of Commerce City for a new home for the Colorado Rapids, with as many as 20 youth soccer fields.

In total, by 2007, our 12th season, we will have built a minimum of six soccer-specific stadiums that truly celebrate our sport. Stadiums that provide a soccer friendly environment for our players and fans. Complexes that provide our owners with the ability to have a more viable business.

As we build the infrastructure for the sport in America, and a league that is providing opportunities for players, coaches, administrators and referees we are also building new sports tradition on this side of the world. This year our teams continued their efforts to connect with the soccer community. Season ticket sales have increased for the second straight year. Year-to-date attendance is up 5%.

Our teams are rapidly becoming soccer "clubs" with youth and soccer player development programs. Next year, we hope to announce a partnership with US Soccer creating a Youth Development League.

It's Major League Soccer's goal to serve as the inspiration for soccer fans -- young and old -- from all ethnic groups and genders throughout America.

That process starts with our players, involves our teams and their staffs and includes committed corporate and media partners.

When you see the faces of the young players on this afternoon's Sierra Mist Youth Soccer Shocker tour of the D.C. area, and their adulation of and appreciation for our players, you will see an example of how a local team can bring inspiration and aspiration to life.

When you go to a grocery store this fall, you will see our teams and players come to life on millions of Post Cereal boxes, thanks to a nationwide Kraft Foods promotion.

And if you are one of the millions of viewers of MLS games on ABC, ESPN2, Fox Sports World, HDNet and a wide variety of local television stations, you can watch our games come to life. By the way, our national household ratings are up nearly 40% this season.

In addition to visionary ownership and continued groundbreaking of stadiums, it's about the product on the field and how the product translates off the field.

We are proud of the 18 players here this weekend who are first-time All-Stars, players we expect to be watching in the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany. While many of our stars have shone in Bruce Arena's U.S. men's national team player pool, we do have 31 players in MLS who kicked off World Cup qualifying this year for no less than 17 countries OUTSIDE the United States.

This is evidence of our rapidly accelerating profile on the world stage.

In addition to being the League of choice for top CONCACAF performers such as Carlos Ruiz, Amado Guevara, Cornell Glen and Andy Williams, MLS continues to secure and develop exquisite young American talent such as Freddy Adu, Eddie Gaven, Danny Szetela and Clint Dempsey. Those players come together in a melting pot on our fields each week, and they will again in tomorrow's All-Star Game.

We continue to work closely with the MLS Players Union on finalizing a long-term Collective Bargaining Agreement. I want to commend the Union leadership -- particularly executive director, Bob Foose and lead counsel, Jon Newman, for their efforts in building this, our inaugural CBA, one which will serve as the foundation of future labor agreements for Major League Soccer.

Our players deeply care about and revere their position as responsible role models. Our players and teams are deeply engaged in the communities we serve, and work tirelessly with local youth coaches and administrators to make a difference in the lives of young kids of all ethnicities in our country.

Tomorrow we celebrate the Past, Present and Future of American soccer, the pioneering spirit of so many who work tirelessly and have sacrificed much for the opportunity we live every day. We pay tribute to the stars of our League and those who made it possible.

I speak with confidence on behalf of our investors, our team administrators, and our players and coaches when I say that each of us believes deeply in the future of our sport, in the future of our league and in the tremendous opportunity that exists for the sport in our country. I want to thank everyone for their role and commitment to our sport and for providing us all the ability to live our dreams.

Enjoy tomorrow's game, and thank you for your participation in the 2004 Sierra Mist MLS All-Star Weekend.

Stay connected: Get access to breaking news, videos, and analysis from North America's best soccer reporters via "This Week in MLS" newsletter or using our FREE mobile app.