New York Red Bulls
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Soccer (Football)

The history of Major League Soccer

The future of MLS soccer is bright, but it's time to take a look at how it all got started.
By Aimée Lister
6 min readPublished on
If you ask a diehard soccer fan why they love Major League Soccer, chances are they’ll tell you that in addition to the game, it's the atmosphere in the arena. An average game has about 20,000 passionate fans who have created their own soccer culture. Their habits include singing throughout each match, shooting off black and blue gunpowder, and lining up 24 hours early just to secure the perfect spot.
These fans, who love to cheer on players like Elias Manoel and Carlos Coronel, have seen tremendous change since the first MLS match was played 26 years ago. Between millions of dollars of losses, folding teams, and attempts to change the rules of the sport, the history of the MLS has been far from a smooth ride!
Carlos Coronel

Carlos Coronel

© GEPA pictures / Red Bull Content Pool

So how did the MLS go from 10 to 28 teams? From a financial failure to a billion-dollar business that now rivals the NFL and NBA? The growth of league was won by players, coaches, and owners who believed in the future of soccer in America, and fought for it with hard work, shrewd business tactics, and the development of high quality play and well-known stars.

The History of Major League Soccer

Before the MLS came to be, there were two Division 1 soccer leagues in the United States and Canada. The first was The American Football Association (AFA) which stopped playing in 1924. Years later, in 1967 the National American Soccer League (NASL) was formed. Although soccer did gain some popularity in this period, especially when the New York Cosmos’ signed Brazilian football legend Pelé in 1975, this was short-lived and the league came to an end in the mid-1980s.
While the first MLS game was played in 1996, the league was actually conceived in 1993. It was just before FIFA awarded the U.S. the right to host the 1994 World Cup. In exchange, U.S. Soccer committed to developing a Division 1 professional soccer league.


A game between the New York Red Bulls and the Colorado Rapids in 2012

A game between the New York Red Bulls and the Colorado Rapids in 2012

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In 1996, the league started with 10 teams:
  • Tampa Bay Mutiny
  • Dallas Burn
  • Colorado Rapids
  • New England Revolution
  • D.C. United
  • Columbus Crew
  • Kansas City Wiz
  • NY/NJ MetroStars (later the New York Red Bulls)
  • Los Angeles Galaxy
  • San Jose Clash
The first-ever MLS season kicked off with a match between D.C. United and San Jose Clash. It was a sellout crowd with an exciting 88th-minute goal to give the Clash the win. Despite the hype and the momentum from the 1994 World Cup, MLS lost an estimated $250 million in its first five years.
The New York Red Bulls vs. D.C. United at the Red Bull Arena in 2012

The New York Red Bulls vs. D.C. United at the Red Bull Arena in 2012

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At the time, soccer just wasn’t popular compared to other sports. So much so that the MLS played with tweaking the game rules to make soccer more appealing to American audiences. Even with experimental changes such as ‘shootout’ rules for tied matches, Americans still weren’t hooked.
In 1997, the league introduced two additional teams - Chicago Fire and Miami FC - to try and draw in local audiences. This strategy also didn’t work and wasn’t helped by the 1998 elimination of the U.S. Men's National Team in the first round of the World Cup.


Though both Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion dissolved in 2002, things started looking up that year when the U.S. beat Portugal and Mexico to qualify for the World Cup Quarter Finals. That energy transferred to the MLS and the 2002 MLS Cup Final had a landmark attendance with 61, 316 spectators.
In 2004, two more teams entered the league - Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA. And although by 2005, the league had lost $300 million, optimism about the future was still high.
New York Red Bulls in 2012

New York Red Bulls in 2012

© Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

By 2006, about 18 million Americans were playing soccer, and a staggering 60 million were attending games on the weekend. That’s when Red Bull entered the pitch, acquiring the NY/NJ MetroStars and renaming them the New York Red Bulls.
Then in 2007, David Beckham signed a landmark $250 million 5-year deal with LA Galaxy. His decision to leave Real Madrid, one of the biggest and most prestigious clubs in the prime of his career, ushered in a new era for Major League Soccer.


2012: Connor Lade (New York Red Bulls) & Osvaldo Alonso (Seattle Sounders)

2012: Connor Lade (New York Red Bulls) & Osvaldo Alonso (Seattle Sounders)

© Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

MLS continued to grow and welcomed four new teams: Seattle Sounders, Philadelphia Union, Vancouver Whitecaps FC, and Portland Timbers.
In 2010, the NY Red Bulls opened the 25,000-seat Red Bull Arena. Located in Harrison, New Jersey, it is a best-in-class soccer stadium and sets the standard for other venues across North America.
This time period saw more overseas stars joining the MLS. In 2010, Thierry Henry signed with the New York Red Bulls, scoring 51 goals through 122 appearances with the team. In 2013, Bradley Wright-Phillips followed suit and joined the club, later going on to become a New York Red Bulls legend with the most goals scored in the Red Bulls’ history.


The past seven years have been marked by expansion, growth, and big ambition. In 2015, New York City FC joined the league. Three years later, David Beckham invested in Inter Miami CF, which joined as MLS’ 25th team in 2020.
Though COVID did impact play with the suspension of the 2020 season and caused a loss of $1 billion, the pandemic doesn’t seem to have slowed the league’s overall upward trajectory. The league has continued to grow with the recent additions of Austin FC, Charlotte FC, and Nashville SC, and there are plans for St Louis and Sacramento teams to join in 2023. There are also plans for the construction of 7 soccer-specific stadiums nationwide.
New York Red Bulls fan section  at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey

New York Red Bulls fan section at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey

© Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

The league continues to gain popularity; the Red Bull Arena was sold out in July of this year for a friendly match between FC Barcelona and The NY Red Bulls. In fact, it’s been estimated that the league has generated $90 million in revenue every year since 2015. It also signed a 10-year broadcasting deal with Apple worth $2.5 billion earlier this year.

The Future of Soccer

For its 2023 season, the League will grow to 29 teams, with an average attendance of 22,000 fans per game. In 2026, the U.S. is also set to host the FIFA World Cup, transforming itself from a soccer newbie into a World Cup contender.
With new TV deals, a growing interest in the league, and an ever-increasing quality of play, the MLS’s future looks bright.