With the LA Galaxy winning their fourth MLS Cup championship on Saturday (two of the wizard hat variety, two that you can drink champagne out of), they've tied D.C. United for most MLS Cup championships opening up the discussion of whether this LA club is the best ever in US soccer.
These type of bar debates are always popular amongst friends, but it was also brought up last night at the Galaxy championship rally by COO Chris Klein. "I think we're looking at the greatest team in American soccer history," he said. We can either debate this or wonder whether or not Brian Perk is going to negotiate with the Galaxy. Perk can wait until tomorrow.
The first step is deciding on some parameters. For a club team to qualify for greatest in American soccer history, they must have played in a FIFA and USSF sanctioned top tier league. That includes MLS, NASL, ASL I. It excludes many more, but gives us some fine contenders.
Four championships is a good benchmark, as for each of these leagues four championships is about a quarter of all available cups. Now without any further ado, the contenders for best American soccer franchise are:
Fall River Marksmen - ASL (1922-1931) - Seven league titles, four Open Cups
Despite the two pistols in their logo, the Marksmen were actually named for their owner Sam Mark. Fall River, Massachusetts had a long history with soccer when the Marksmen came around, and large crowds would turn out for Fall River United matches. Sam Mark took them over and even built them a stadium that held 15,000 spectators; aptly titled Mark's Stadium. Mark's men turned out to be quite good at soccer football, winning seven of the eleven American Soccer League championships. Not that the league was full of pushovers, Bethlehem Steel had a long winning tradition (more on them in a moment). The Marksman recruited several Scottish nationals (to the ire of the FA) such as Bill McPherson who made 331 appearances and scored 53 goals with the club. The Marksmen also won four National Challenge Cups.
Bethlehem Steel - NAFBL/ASL (1911-1930) - Four league titles, five Open Cups
The case for Bethlehem Steel is a bit tricker, because they won nine championships as a club but those championships have to be whittled down due to our parameters. The club began as a rec league team for the Bethlehem Steel company, owned by Charles Schwab (you may have heard of him). As an amateur team they won three championships (which we're not counting) which made them popular enough to necessitate the building of grandstands around Bethlehem Steel Athletic Field (more Soccer Specific Stadiums!) which is still used to this day by Moravian College. Bethlehem won four championships in the ASL and it's predecessor National Association Foot Ball League. They also won two championships in the Eastern Soccer League, but that was born out of a conflict with the ASL over participation in the National Challenge Cup which was deemed too expensive (none of our soccer problems are new MLS fans, none of them). Bethlehem won five National Challenge Cups in their history. Alex Massie, who would go on to star with Aston Villa, got his start with Bethlehem Steel.
New York Cosmos - NASL (1971-1985) - Five league titles
The Great Depression and infighting dooms the ASL, and then the soccer landscape goes amateur again until the 1966 World Cup which was broadcast nationally on NBC. There's a sudden mad scramble to get a US soccer league going again, with imported teams and all sorts of schemes. Out of this chaos emerge the New York Cosmos, the most successful of any NASL club with five championships. NASL teams did not compete in the US Open Cup. The Cosmos were founded by two Warner Communications executives, and named for the cosmopolitan nature of New York (to outdo the recently founded New York Metropolitan Baseball Club, or New York Mets). Afro sporting Bermudan Randy Horton was the team's first star, and he led them to their first championship in 1972. The 1975 arrival of Pele changed everything, increasing attendance tenfold and delivering a second championship in his final year. The Cosmos were able to sustain that attendance after Pele's retirement, and after signing internationals Carlos Alberto and Franz Beckenbauer they won three of four championships. Indeed, Pele's biggest legacy is that he raised the profile of the club, not necessarily his on the pitch contributions. Unfortunately the Cosmos, like the NASL, were unsustainable.
D.C. United - MLS (1996- ) - Four league titles, two Open Cups
The NASL tries to survive through the 80s with indoor variants and some such, but when US Soccer starts bidding for the World Cup, FIFA demands it sanction a top tier league. D.C. was one of the few original clubs to take on a European style name, instead of a American style Nike given name. Bruce Arena had won five national championships (including four in a row from 1991-94) which earned him the US U-23 job, and was selected by D.C. as their first head coach. Arena won the first two MLS Cups, with his midseason acquisition Jaime Moreno. Arena got called up to coach the US national team, and it took Arena's replacement Thomas Rongen two years to get their third. The 2003 addition of Freddy Adu at the age of fourteen got the attention of the sporting world, and a year later DC would put together their fourth Cup run. United have only lost MLS Cup once, and were the Supporters' Shield winners in two of the four Cup years.
LA Galaxy - MLS (1996- ) - Four league titles, two Open Cups
In early MLS the Galaxy were always the bridesmaid and never the bride, losing three MLS Cups before finally losing one. The Galaxy have actually lost as many MLS Cups as they've won, appearing in the final eight times. So not only do D.C. and the Galaxy represent almost half the MLS Cup wins in MLS, the Galaxy alone have appeared in almost half the MLS Cups. Galaxy and D.C. benefit from the relocation of the original San Jose franchise, as there are four championships won by that franchise but the new Earthquakes claim the two titles won by the old Earthquakes. The Galaxy have always had a marketable star, from US national team star Cobi Jones to US national team star Landon Donovan to English national team star David Beckham. As a result, the Galaxy are the US' best known brand internationally since the New York Cosmos. Fitting really, both teams have space related names which are actually referring to the citizens of the area.
So there you have it, five clubs with a claim to the title greatest American soccer club. They're all subject to their eras, but it lends a bit of perspective to the argument. Certainly between LA and D.C., the Galaxy look in a better position to win their fifth championship. Whichever club does reach that plateau first will equal the New York Cosmos. However, one can't ignore history. The Fall River Marksmen and their soccer specific Mark's Stadium laid the seeds that the Cosmos, D.C. and the Galaxy were eventually able to germinate. So let's give MLS another decade, and see where things stand before handing off that mantle.
And if you're reading this New England Revolution executives, Boston Marksmen is such a better name. Like ten times better.