In circa three weeks, MLS will kick off for the 17th time in it's history. It's the 100th year of FIFA sanctioned soccer in America, though only the 34th with a national first division league. It will feature 19 clubs: 16 in the United States and 3 in Canada. So how does that compare to other leagues at this juncture of their history?
The first place to look would be at American baseball, since it is the oldest continuous league that we'll be looking at today. The National League started play in 1876, 120 years before MLS would kick off it's first season. In the National League's 17th year the Boston Beaneaters won 102 games to win the pennant, their second of three straight.
You know the Beaneaters better as the Atlanta Braves. You see fans of Boston's franchise in this 16 year old league had many things to look forward to. While their pitcher Kid Nichols was a future Hall of Famer, the Beaneaters would change nicknames to the Doves and finally the Braves. Of course by this time the upstart American League was in Boston, and the Boston Red Sox (taking their nickname from the Beaneaters original nickname) would eventually kick the Braves out of town. The franchise spends some time in Milwaukee, and eventually finds their way to Atlanta.
The NL that year had 12 franchises, all no further than the Mississippi and the Great Lakes. Only one of the 12 franchises would fold, the Louisville Colonels. However, this was no stable league yet. Only two franchises had survived from the 1876 charter, and the NL only stayed in business by adding teams from the rival American Association. It wasn't until 1900 until the NL solidified into what are now known as the Classic Eight, twenty four years after it's founding.
Of course three years later, it had to deal with this upstart American League, which teams in many of the same cities as the NL was operating.
So that's same country, different sport. What about same sport, different country?
In 1904 The Football League of England kicked off it's 17th season. Remember the Premier League wasn't created until the 90s for television purposes. Thanks to the general lack of official nicknames in European football, the teams are a mite more recognizable. Newcastle United won the League Championship and Aston Villa won the FA Cup.
The FL First Division consisted of 18 teams (look familiar) and featured no relegation. Now this year of no relegation was a fluke, as the FL was restructuring into two divisions of 20 teams each in the next season. The two second division teams promoted to join the first 18 were Liverpool and Bolton Wanderers (Manchester United finished third). The Second Division also consisted of 18 teams.
The reason the League had 36 clubs is because it had faced competition in the form of the Football Alliance in 1889, one year after the League had launched. Ultimately The Football League ended up absorbing the Football Alliance. The FA clubs became the Second Division, and a system of promotion and relegation was launched so the FA's top clubs could work their way in.
Baseball handled it's competition by keeping the leagues separate, but having a championship series between the two top clubs. English football absorbed all the clubs, then let the cream rise to the top. Different strokes, really, but not a scenario MLS has faced yet.
There are some less recognizable names in that 17th season table. Small Heath, Bury, Notts County. Those more familiar with English football probably know Sheffield United, The Wednesday. Derby County and Nottingham Forest were featured in The Damn United, so there ya go. Arsenal was known as Woolwich Arsenal.
At least one major club wasn't around yet; Chelsea wasn't founded until 1905.
What does all this mean for MLS? It's certainly further along than major league baseball was in it's 17th year. The single entity structure has prevented the habitual folding that plagued the early days of the NL. MLS did have to contract two teams after premature expansion, but since then has made sure to has investors lined up before expanding.
MLS hasn't faced direct competition like baseball and english football did in their early days. Recent expansion has involved a promotion of sorts, taking already establish minor league clubs and remaking them in MLS' image (Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, Montreal). In Los Angeles, CD Guadalajara was arguably the most popular soccer club so they set up a sister team.
If MLS has been anything, it's adaptable. English football teams have nicknames given by fans, American baseball teams have nicknames given by the media; MLS has nicknames created by marketing departments. In the early days the clubs were fit for Tomorrowland, with cutting edge sounding names and kits. Then came a direct appeal to European Soccer fans, to the established fans in new markets, and in one case to FMF fans.
Which is all to say, with planes and cable television, MLS faces a different battle. The battle for grounds, lost by American first division soccer leagues of the past, has been quite successful; it's the battle for airwaves that is more significant.
Not that panicking over ratings is a habit worth encouraging, but the days of fans choosing between the Boston Braves or the Boston Redsox; the days of Manchester City in the First Division and Newton Heath in the Second are behind us. Now fans are choosing between Arsenal and the New York Red Bulls; between Club America and the LA Galaxy.
Still, I can't help but think back to Fever Pitch and young Paul looking out onto the pitch at Arsenal Stadium for the first time; instantly falling in love. This of course is the philosophy of sites like Free Beer Movement, invite a friend out with the promise of beer and just wait for them to get hooked.
As MLS embarks on it's 17th year, perhaps the grounds battle is more significant than I gave it credit for. Football League winners Newcastle United played in front of 30,000 fans at St. James' Park in their 17th year. 100 some odd years later they're still playing football there. Perhaps that's what MLS fans have to look forward to.