MLS' 21st season isn't quite in the books, with Eastern and Western Conference Championships looming, and the Audi 2016 MLS Cup still to go. But as the four remaining clubs and their supporters gear up for that last push, Phil West's new book The United States of Soccer – due out Tuesday, Nov. 15 from Overlook Press – offers a look back at how the league got here over the past two decades.
West, a regular contributor to MLSsoccer.com, brings a historian's approach to his book, rather than a pundit's. The pages brim with research, with vintage news reports and opinion pieces intermingled with plenty of solid original interviews with players, execs, soccer media members and supporters alike. (This being MLS, a lot of people wear multiple hats across those categories.)
He also reaches back into the larger history of the club game in the US when needed – especially to previous pro leagues, and club history in Cascadia. And while the book does convey an appreciation for the league and those who worked to build it, it's not a puff piece. West hits the low points – the feuds and failures, firings and false steps – as well as the high. There are a lot of “almosts” in the book as well, several of them having to do with naming and/or rebranding (Kansas City Bees, anyone? No joke. Well, not an intentional one.)
Longtime fans likely have heard a lot of the stories already. Rivalries aside, MLS lifers – who have had to build a culture around MLS as well as support their own clubs, from either the stands or the front office — are a close-knit group.
The tales bear repeating, though, as more and more clubs and supporters join up in a league that just recorded its second straight year of record attendance, and that will add two new clubs next year in Minnesota United and Atlanta United. And even if the accounts are already familiar to some, it's always good to look back at how things used to be to fully appreciate what the league has become.
Let's take a look at some of the top anecdotes from The United States of Soccer. For instance, did you know …
1) … that a lot of clubs used to discourage supporters groups, sometimes to baffling extremes?
Peter Wilt, who became the Chicago team’s GM in July 1997, recalls, “The first thing I did was visit every other MLS team, to do a best practices tour. And, as it turned out, it ended up being a worst practices tour. I learned what not to do from virtually every team in the league except for D.C. United.”
One memorable moment in Wilt’s tour took place in Kansas City, according to West's book. There he noticed Wizards GM Tim Latta getting on a walkie-talkie to instruct security to throw several fans out of the stadium. They’d been tossing confetti, and as Latta told Wilt, “Our agreement here with the stadium is that we have to pay for cleanup, and it’s so expensive to clean up after the games.”
2) … that the now-folded Miami Fusion, under chairman Ken Horowitz, undertook an overhaul project that created a 20,000-seat, soccer-specific venue (Lockhart Stadium) the year before Columbus opened theirs?
Horowitz remembers in tyhe book, “We had a season coming up. ... I had no choice. We said, ‘Let’s build the stadium,’ we hired a design firm, and we did it.” While not disclosing the exact amount he personally spent to finance the stadium renovations, Horowitz said it was definitely in seven-figure territory and approaching $10 million, though MLSsoccer.com puts it at closer to $5 million.
The renovations included redoing the field, expanding the stands to accommodate three times what they once held, and putting in new lighting. They also added an electronic scoreboard with video capabilities, broadcasting facilities, and offices for the team’s game-day operations.
A number of league officials and historians credit Columbus Crew SC (and Lamar Hunt’s ownership group) with building the league’s first soccer-specific stadium in 1999. Although Lockhart wasn’t “built” in the strictest sense of the term, Horowitz contends that Lockhart was the league’s first soccer-specific facility, even noting that Hunt came to Ft. Lauderdale and scouted Lockhart as he was planning his own team's stadium.
Horowitz boasts that Lockhart was transformed into “the best soccer field in the country — brand-new stands, broadcast lighting, beautiful field, the seats were right up at the field. It was a gorgeous stadium. People went on and on about how great it was.”
3) … that upon moving from San Jose, the former Clash/Earthquakes 1.0, now the Houston Dynamo, had to rebrand before even playing a game?
Houston did, however, misstep immediately with its new identity, according to events recounted in West's book. The original franchise name, Houston 1836, was announced in late January of 2006, intended as a nod to German franchises that included a year in the team name (most famously Hannover 96), and incorporating the year Houston was founded.
However, 1836 was also the year that the famed Battle of the Alamo was fought. This was not the best way to engage Latinos, who then made up 40 percent of the Houston metro population, and were largely weary of generations of Texas historians and even teachers framing the battle as one in which valiant whites protected themselves against Mexican aggressors.
Simon Romero, a Houston-based New York Times reporter covering the controversy, noted that the AEG appeared “to have upset some of the very soccer-crazy fans they were hoping to lure, after basing its venture in part on the crowds of Spanish-speaking fútbol aficionados who regularly fill stadiums here to attend the matches of visiting clubs from Mexico.” Romero also quoted Houston-based Latino marketing expert Paco Bendaña, who dryly noted, “Clearly, not enough homework was put into this. Historically speaking, 1836 is not something we celebrate.”
4) … that Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson was first approached by Philadelphia Union cofounder Nick Sakiewicz to be part of that team's ownership group?
“At the same time, I was meeting with whoever, talking to anybody and everybody trying to get investment into the league,” Sakiewicz says in The United States of Soccer, noting that at one point he’d talked to Merritt Paulson as part of the Philly investment group. “I didn’t know he had his heart set on buying a minor league baseball team in Portland,” he adds, laughing. That was Paulson’s stepping-stone to launching an MLS team in the Rose City several years later.
5) … and that though David Beckham's signing brought incredible publicity to the league and four pieces of silverware to the LA Galaxy, fans didn't exactly warm to him at first – especially after he arranged a loan to Serie A side AC Milan after the 2009 season?
The loan was initially announced as spanning just two months, from the first week of 2009 to when training camp started, though Milan director Umberto Gandini did tell the media the loan was “for as long as David wishes.” But then Beckham decided to extend his loan through the end of the Serie A season; Milan and Beckham contributed jointly to what was termed a multimillion-dollar payment to the Galaxy in order to extend the loan.
This did not sit particularly well with some Galaxy fans. In a particularly ugly incident in July 2009, in Beckham’s first start after returning from Milan, he was booed and jeered repeatedly and even got into an angry confrontation with several fans in the LA Riot Squad section. According to the book, fans also expressed themselves with banners that called him a “fraud” and a “part-time player,” as well as asserting their Galaxy fandom as resolute “before, after, and despite” Beckham.
Bruce Arena responded to the incident in fatherly fashion, telling the media, “We regret the incident that happened at the end of the first half. While it is important that our fans remain free to voice their opinions, they must do so in an appropriate manner. We appreciate our players’ and fans’ passion for the team and the game, but we all must aim to hold ourselves to higher standards.”
Beckham has retired from playing, but hopes – maybe, someday – to see another Miami team take the pitch and make it this time. The league's history is still being written, after all – by those who have been around from the beginning and those who have joined in along the way.
Through The United States of Soccer, author West now enjoys his own part of that history, as observer and chronicler. This is a solid read for anyone interested in how the league they love came to be.