MLS

MLS 24 years on: Beckham, Zlatan and the landmark moments

By Sports Desk April 06, 2020

On April 6, 1996, the United States of America embraced a new competition as Major League Soccer debuted in San Jose.

After the collapse of the North American Soccer League 12 years earlier, a new 10-team league had formed, hoping to ride the crest of a wave from USA hosting the 1994 World Cup.

To mark 24 years to the day since Eric Wynalda's 88th-minute strike earned San Jose Clash a 1-0 win over DC United, we look at the biggest landmarks in MLS' history so far.

 

1996 - THE DAWN OF A NEW ERA

As part of the agreement to award USA the 1994 World Cup, the United States Soccer Federation had to commit to starting a new elite league.

The result was the formation of MLS - a 10-team competition with clubs such as LA Galaxy, DC United and New England Revolution all involved in that inaugural campaign.

DC United came from 2-0 down to beat the Galaxy 3-2 in the MLS Cup in front of 34,643 fans in Massachusetts.

2001 - HUNT TO THE RESCUE

After four years of dwindling attendances, the future of MLS appeared bleak when commissioner Don Garber staged a meeting in 2001 attended by both club owners and bankruptcy attorneys.

The league had lost $250million since its first game, but Philip Anschutz, the Kraft and Hunt families stepped forward to bankroll the 11 franchises between them.

The late Lamar Hunt had convinced owners not to fold the league, and it proved a shrewd decision...

2005 - THE EXPANSION BOOM BEGINS

For the first time since 1998 - when Chicago Fire and the short-lived Miami Fusion came on board - new MLS teams joined the party in the form of Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA.

MLS expanded to 13 clubs in 2007, and it grew in size in each of the next five seasons.

This season, MLS has 26 clubs and that number will grow to 30 by 2022.

2007 - DAVID BRINGS BECKS APPEAL

It could be argued no player has had a greater impact on MLS than one David Beckham.

The Manchester United and Real Madrid great arrived in the City of Stars in 2007 thanks to the 'Designated Player Rule' - nicknamed the 'Beckham Rule', allowing clubs to sign up to three players that count outside their salary cap.

LA Galaxy's acquisition of Beckham was seen as a huge coup. The England midfielder spent five seasons in Hollywood and his arrival helped put MLS on the map.

2012 - AMERICA'S SECOND FAVOURITE SPORT

As well as Beckham's arrival, the sport's popularity was also aided by USA's thrilling matches at the 2010 World Cup.

USA beat Algeria to reach the last 16 thanks to a last-gasp Landon Donovan goal, only to lose their first knockout match to Ghana in extra time.

Interest intensified, though, and in 2012 an ESPN poll found MLS was America's second-most popular sporting league among those aged 12-24 - behind just the NFL.

2018 - MARTINEZ AND ATLANTA BRING THE NOISE

The 2018 MLS Cup was watched by 73,019 fans at Atlanta United's Mercedes-Benz Stadium, shattering the previous final record of 61,316 supporters from 16 years earlier.

Atlanta, in just their second campaign, won the trophy during a memorable campaign when Josef Martinez scored a record 31 goals in the regular season.

With Zlatan Ibrahimovic making the Galaxy must-watch again, Wayne Rooney transforming DC United and Carlos Vela firing at Los Angeles FC, it was one of the more memorable MLS campaigns to date.

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    Steven Gerrard enjoyed plenty of success during his illustrious playing career. 

    As a youngster, he was part of Gerard Houllier's Liverpool squad that completed a cup treble in the 2000-01 season, including beating Deportivo Alaves 5-4 after extra time in the UEFA Cup final. 

    Then there was the Miracle of Istanbul under Rafael Benitez in 2005, followed a year later by an equally unforgettable FA Cup win. Gerrard was the talisman on both occasions, playing his part in the comeback against Milan before going on to deny West Ham at the death in Cardiff.

    With fellow club legend Kenny Dalglish there was a third EFL Cup success, but a league title eluded Gerrard. The Reds ran Manchester United hard in the title race in 2008-09, then came up agonisingly short five years later with Brendan Rodgers at the helm. 

    But Gerrard is not alone in missing out. As the ex-England international turns 40, take a look at 10 other notable names who never got their hands on the Premier League trophy.

     

    Gareth Bale 

    After a slow start, Bale eventually blossomed into a superstar at Tottenham. The left-back signed from Southampton benefited from a switch into a more advanced position, scoring 39 goals in all competitions in his final two seasons with Spurs. However, the best finish he managed in a Premier League campaign before joining Real Madrid in 2013 was fourth. 

    Marcel Desailly 

    Frenchman Desailly became accustomed to winning during his time with Milan. He just so happened to win the World Cup in 1998 with Les Bleus – then followed that up two years later by adding Euro 2000 to his list of honours. Yet there was no Premier League crown during a lengthy Chelsea stint, instead having to make do with the FA Cup in 2000. 

    David Ginola 

    A winger renowned for his flair (and his hair), Ginola was part of the Newcastle United squad that succumbed under pressure from Manchester United in 1995-96. Kevin Keegan's swashbucklers led by 10 points at Christmas, only to end up as bridesmaids. At Spurs, the Frenchman was named PFA Players' Player of the Year, while he also played for Everton and Aston Villa.

    Juninho 

    Middlesbrough certainly made a splash when promoted to the top tier in 1995, bringing a touch of Samba flair to their new Riverside home by signing Juninho from Sao Paulo. It was a transfer coup at the time and the diminutive Brazilian made a big impact, too. He left for Atletico Madrid in 1997 and, after returning on loan for the 1999-2000 season, he came back for a third stint, though his only trophy was the EFL Cup in 2004. 

    Harry Kane

    Will Kane overtake Alan Shearer as the Premier League's all-time leading scorer? Can he win the competition if he stays at Spurs? You would be forgiven for feeling one of those is more realistic than the other, particularly after the near misses of the Mauricio Pochettino era. That 2015-16 season for Tottenham must feel like the one that got away.  

    Matt Le Tissier 

    A one-club man in the top flight, Le Tissier became more accustomed to battling against relegation than getting involved in title fights. Southampton relied on his goals to help stave off the threat of the drop some years, but rumours of a move elsewhere never materialised during his peak. He finished up with 100 Premier League goals, plenty of them penalties.  

    Mesut Ozil 

    Perhaps epitomising Arsenal as a whole during his time in north London, Ozil has both delighted and frustrated fans. His playmaking abilities are not in doubt, but is he a luxury you can afford in your XI? A three-time FA Cup winner with the Gunners, the former Germany international's best league result is second to surprise winners Leicester City in 2016. 

    Luis Suarez 

    A former team-mate of Gerrard's at Liverpool, Suarez was an integral part of the 2013-14 Reds that seemed destined to end the club's long wait for glory. The Uruguayan scored 31 goals in 33 league games, yet a late slump left their top scorer in tears as Manchester City pipped them to the post. The following campaign, the forward had moved on to Barcelona. 

    Fernando Torres 

    Torres formed an outstanding partnership with Gerrard during their time together at Anfield. The pair were influential in a memorable 4-1 triumph at Old Trafford in 2009, yet United had the last laugh that season, ending up four points clear of their rivals. The Spaniard also finished second again two years later with Chelsea, although by then he was a shadow of the striker he once was. 

    Gianfranco Zola 

    A hugely popular signing by Ruud Gullit in November 1996 who later returned to work at Chelsea as assistant to Maurizio Sarri, Zola scored 59 Premier League goals and grabbed the winner off the bench in the 1998 Cup Winners' Cup final triumph over Stuttgart. There was also FA Cup and EFL Cup success during his time in England, just no league crown.

  • Next Generation – Salisu, the trailblazing defensive jewel slipping through Barca and Atletico's fingertips Next Generation – Salisu, the trailblazing defensive jewel slipping through Barca and Atletico's fingertips

    'Next Generation' is a series focusing on the young players tipped to establish themselves as the elite in the 2020s.

     

    Although he didn't know it at the time, March 2017 was a momentous month in the career of Mohammed Salisu, the Ghanaian centre-back who is now interesting many of the world's biggest clubs.

    In the town of Nsawam, south Ghana, the African Talent Football Academy (ATFA) first began operating, coaching hopeful young footballers who dreamed of a career in Europe.

    With a brand new facility – comprising of pitches and a club house that included a common area, dining space and accommodation – and connections to European clubs, the ATFA began to mark itself as potential gateway for Ghanaian youngsters chasing a better future.

    Just six months after opening, the ATFA had its trailblazer, their first 'graduate'. Director Fran Castano travelled with one teenager to Spain.

    Salisu was signed then and there – his journey to the top had begun.

    Destined for the top

    Life at the ATFA didn't start particularly well for Salisu.

    "I remember my first time meeting him – he came without his boots and was late. I was very, very angry and I was close to telling him to go home," Castano, speaking to Stats Perform News, recalled. It proved a wise decision to hold that thought, however.

    "He took some boots from the goalkeeper and after 10 minutes playing we saw something different. I talked to him and told him that if he can be serious and work, I promised him in half year I could send him to Spain."

    Sure enough, in October 2017 Salisu was signed by Real Valladolid, with the ATFA earning a small fee and a percentage of any future sale. That could be cashed in sooner rather than later as well, with reports in Spain suggesting Rennes are very close to completing a deal in the region of his €12million release clause.

    That would be considered a significant coup for the French side, as Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United and Atletico Madrid are all said to have considered a move for Salisu in the past six months.

    It's even claimed the latter were willing to pay €11m, but curiously wouldn't stretch to the full release clause. It's an oversight they could come to regret.

    "I told him he would make it [to the top]," says Castano, who previously held many roles in youth coaching and analytics for the Niger and Mauritania national teams, Real Jaen, Leganes and Hearts of Oak, Ghana's biggest club, before setting up the ATFA.

    "You always have doubt because it's not only about talent. To come and live in Europe was a big change for him, but I knew he would make it [on the talent side] because I saw his level compared with others in Spain at the same age and the way he can develop. You could see from the beginning he was different. The body, the technique, the winning mentality, the confidence and how he developed faster than anybody. If you increased the challenge, he increased his level."

    Persistence and a friend's trust lead to vindication

    Castano estimates Salisu played just 10 youth matches for Pucela before being promoted to their B team in the third tier, and then at the start of this season he became an undisputed starter for the senior side – indeed, he's one of just four defenders to play all 27 LaLiga matches in 2019-20.

    A former student of sport performance analysis at the University of Granada, Castano's pride in Salisu is obvious – joining Valladolid wasn't just a big deal for the defender, but also vindication for Castano.

    "I offered Salisu to a lot of teams, nobody gave us a chance. Nobody knew Salisu or me. I was just starting and it wasn't easy," he said. "I was lucky. My friend Victor Fernandez, who was a great striker in LaLiga for Valladolid and Villarreal, was coaching Valladolid's Under-19s. I called him and told him about Salisu. He told me he trusted what I say and my eye for scouting players.

    "After one training exercise, just a few minutes, he [Victor] told me: 'Fran, are sure you know the kind of player you have?' He said he [Salisu] could be a very important defender in professional football. I had thought so, but I wasn't that sure of it until he told me."

    Salisu's adaptation to LaLiga was impressive. In October, less than two months after his top-flight debut, he was being championed as a "star" on the league's official Twitter account after impressing in a 0-0 draw with Atletico.

    Jordi Masip has been a fixture behind Salisu in goal. The experienced goalkeeper applauded the youngster's capacity to learn and is convinced a big future lies in wait.

    "He's a player with an enviable physicality, he gets very fast when it comes to interceptions," Masip told Stats Perform News. "He's very young and he can grow a lot. He's a person that wants to improve and listen to us.

    "He has always had a little difficulty with the language, but he is adapting very well, he understands everything, he asks questions and his adaptation is going well. To be so young, his characteristics are very good, he still can give far more than he is already giving."

    A dominant defender

    It's easy to argue that Pucela would be in even worse shape this season if they didn't have Salisu. After all, when LaLiga resumes they will start in 15th place, just four points above the bottom three.

    But being in a team that has to spend longer stretches of time defending, Salisu's quality really shines through and it's clear he's making a difference, with only seven teams – all of whom are in the top half of the table – conceding fewer than Valladolid this term.

    When watching Salisu, you really get the impression he loves defending. A real unit with long, gangly legs, he has a habit of pulling off blocks or last-ditch tackles that one wouldn't expect.

    His 67 aerials won is bettered by just eight defenders, while Sevilla's Diego Carlos – widely regarded as one of the standout centre-backs in LaLiga this term – is the only player to make more headed clearances (71) than Salisu (67).

    Diego Carlos – and every other defender, for that matter – trails in Salisu's wake with respect to total clearances, however. The 21-year-old has completed 136, with the experienced Raul Albiol (131) boasting the next most.

    Salisu also ranks very high in terms of blocks with 22. Gabriel (26) is the solitary defender to have halted more shots. His 31 interceptions is also a decent figure, though the league-high among defenders of 48 is a fair way ahead of him.

    What's clear is Salisu's enjoying a wonderful season. Despite his age and lack of experience, he is marking himself out as a consistent and committed performer.

    While his technical attributes may not yet be at the required level for, say, Barcelona, he models himself on Blaugrana centre-back Samuel Umtiti and has already shown himself to be a quick learner on the pitch.

    Either way, one can certainly see why Diego Simeone and Atletico are said to be keen, but time appears to be running out for El Cholo. With Rennes seemingly circling, a defensive jewel could be about to slip through the fingertips of LaLiga's elite.

  • On this day in sport: Babe Ruth's farewell, Liverpool rock Roma, Tyson topples Thomas and Cook's twin feats On this day in sport: Babe Ruth's farewell, Liverpool rock Roma, Tyson topples Thomas and Cook's twin feats

    Babe Ruth knew time was up on his baseball playing career on May 30 in 1935, but his name lives on and many consider him the greatest player to have swung a bat.

    Liverpool supporters may look back fondly on memories of 1984 at the Stadio Olimpico, where Joe Fagan's team rocked Roma in the European Cup final.

    The brilliant and brute force of Mike Tyson was felt on this day in 1987 by Pinklon Thomas.

    And Alastair Cook, the great England opening batsman, made history not once but twice in successive years on this date.

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    1935 – Babe Ruth struck out for the last time

    Nothing that happened in his short spell at the Boston Braves could stain his name, yet Ruth's move from the New York Yankees turned out to be an almighty flop. Arriving in February 1935, Ruth – baseball's biggest draw of the era and a player whose name resonates to this day – offered just glimpses of his glory days. On May 25, he thundered three home runs, albeit in a losing cause against Pittsburgh. That feat took his career haul to a then-record 714 homers, and there would be no more, Ruth playing his final game five days later against the Phillies. At the age of 40, out of shape and a shadow of his former self as a player, Ruth called it quits, his retirement announced days later.

    1984 - Liverpool stun Roma - in Rome

    Liverpool's fourth European Cup, like their fifth 21 years later, came thanks to a penalty shoot-out win against Italian opposition. In 2005, Liverpool had their 'Miracle of Istanbul' against Milan, but in 1984 the English giants had the nerve to beat Roma in Rome, in what was the first shoot-out in a European Cup final. Phil Neal's early strike for Liverpool was matched by Roma's Roberto Pruzzo before half-time and there would be no further goals. Fagan's Liverpool were the team that proved steadiest under pressure in the penalty shoot-out, despite Steve Nicol's early miss. Neal, Graeme Souness and Ian Rush stepped up to score, and after Bruce Grobbelaar's wobbly-legged wind-up routine put off Francesco Graziani, who skied his shot, Alan Kennedy stepped up to fire home and clinch the trophy.

    1987 - Tyson takes down Thomas

    Thomas was a more-than-useful American heavyweight in the mid-1980s, a fighter who had held the WBC belt before and fancied getting it back. The only problem for Thomas was that Tyson owned the belt, and the latter felt it suited him rather better than it suited Thomas. That theory was put to the test on a Saturday night in Las Vegas, and despite Thomas' jab keeping Tyson busy, trouble was soon brewing for the challenger. A thundering left hook from Tyson had Thomas wobbling in the sixth round and was followed by a flurry of punches that sent the 29-year-old to the canvas. Thomas just about managed to get to his feet but trainer Angelo Dundee stepped in, taking his man out of harm's way, Tyson retaining the WBC and WBA titles.

    2015 and 2016 - Cook's England landmarks

    Cook, born on Christmas Day in 1984, was the gift that kept on giving for England. Plucked from the county circuit as a prodigy who already had a double century for Essex against Australia, Cook piled on the Test runs for his country, including a ton on his debut in 2006 against India. On this day in 2015, the then-captain Cook passed his Essex mentor Graham Gooch to become England's all-time leading Test run-scorer during an innings of 75 against New Zealand at Headingley. Not content with overtaking Gooch's mark of 8,900 runs, Cook went on to achieve another May 30 feat 12 months later, becoming the first Englishman to tally 10,000 Test runs. He reached that total on the way to England securing a nine-wicket win over Sri Lanka at Chester-le-Street.

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