Then and Now | An Examination of Key Differences in MLS from 1996 to Now

Major League Soccer was born in 1988 when the United States Soccer Federation pledged to create a top professional soccer league as a condition to FIFA awarding the 1994 FIFA World Cup to the U.S. After years of planning, the league was founded in 1995, with the expectation of beginning play the following year.

On January 5, 1995, Major League Soccer held their Inaugural Allocations, signing ‘marquee’ players and distributing four to each of the 10 clubs. In these allocations, San Jose was awarded John Doyle, Michael Emenalo, Eric Wynalda and Ben Iroha. Tab Ramos was the first player distributed, heading to the NY/NJ Metrostars, later joined by players such as Jeff Agoos (D.C. United), Dominic Kinnear (Colorado Rapids), Alexi Lalas (New England Revolution) and Roy Lassiter (Tampa Bay Mutiny). In total, 23 of the 40 players distributed were American, proving the value of local talent available. American-born or raised players that chose to ply their craft here in MLS as opposed to South America or Europe helped pave the way for future superstars to come aboard.

Rosters were then filled out through the 1996 MLS Inaugural Player Draft, which was largely decided by performances at a pre-draft combine. Most of the players taken in the draft were selected from smaller leagues throughout the country, including the American Professional Soccer League, the United Soccer League and the United States Indoor Soccer League. U.S. international forward Brian McBride, who then played for Wolfsburg in Germany, was the first overall selection by the Columbus Crew. San Jose selected midfielder Paul Bravo with their first selection and he wound up leading the club with 13 goals during the inaugural season. The draft was largely a crapshoot, with most players selected having very little scouting done of them, if any.

Once teams were assembled, the next step was to ensure the product on the field was of good quality. The teams didn’t have proper training facilities and played their matches in football stadiums. The inaugural match in San Jose between the Clash and D.C. United was broadcast on ESPN, and league executives were worried that the first match had to provide a spark in order to generate momentum for the league to continue to grow. Late in the game, neither team had scored and it seemed as though it would be heading for a dreary 0-0 draw through the end of regulation. But then Clash forward Eric Wynalda provided a stroke of genius, crossing up D.C. defender Jeff Agoos and burying his shot inside the far post. Agoos later joked that he saved Major League Soccer by allowing the goal to happen.

All in all, the league broadcast 35 games nationally on ESPN and ESPN2. At the time, it was respectable, with roughly one in five games being aired for the nation to see. Today, the league’s TV deals are booming, with 34 games on the ESPN networks, 28 on UniMas, 30 on FOX Sports 1 and four more on FOX, with broadcasts distributed to more than 140 nations worldwide. 

Since 1996, the league has doubled the amount of teams that compete, while adding three Canadian sides, soccer-specific stadiums are being built across the country, attendance figures are up and MLS is profitable after years of financial instability. American players continue to be the bulk of the league, with U.S. internationals such as Quakes forward Chris Wondolowski, Sounders FC striker Clint Dempsey and Sporting KC defender Matt Besler leading the way. The league is now also chalk full of international superstars like Brazilian midfielder Kaka, Italian playmaker Sebastian Giovinco and Irish goal-scorer Robbie Keane. With today’s quality of facilities and revenues being generated that can support salaries comparable with leagues around the world, MLS is now a destination for global soccer icons.

San Jose is the perfect example of how far the league has come in 20 years. Originally playing in Spartan Stadium on the campus of the San Jose State University, the Earthquakes now own their own home, Avaya Stadium, which is among the best soccer-specific stadiums in the nation. Spartan Stadium was adequate in both field conditions and seating capabilities, but lacked key features and a true Quakes identity, since after all, they were just renting. Avaya Stadium now encompasses the entire Earthquakes organization and facilities, with the front office building and training field on-site. The venue has also been selected to host the 2016 MLS All-Star Game and has already hosted Manchester United for a weeklong stay last summer.


Major League Soccer that we all know and love has undoubtedly evolved from its humble beginnings in 1996. A league set out to gain popularity in the American sporting landscape; rules, regulations and head-turning attire were implemented in hopes of distinguishing themselves from the rest of the major leagues. Twenty years removed from the league’s 1996 inaugural match, we take a closer look at how MLS games have changed over the years.   

The Evolution of the Game Ball
Then: The official Mitre Major League Soccer Game ball for the 1996 season had a circumference of 27-28 inches and a weight of 14-16 oz. The ball was colored blue and green to compliment the league’s official logo. 

Now: Twenty years later, NATIVO, the league’s brand-new match ball, boasts “a unique symmetry of six identical panels alongside a textured surface.” NATIVO is decorated with the flags of the league’s two home countries, the United States and Canada.

Twice as many teams
Then: The league was comprised of 10 teams, all in the continental United States.

Now: MLS has expanded to 20 teams, including three in Canada, with plans to add four more by 2020.

Field Expansion
Then: The MLS field dimensions have experienced changes in its 20-year existence. In 1996, the pitch was required to be a minimum of 50 yards wide by 100 yards long. 

Now: In present day MLS, the playing field has to be a minimum 70 yards wide by 110 yards long. 

The Regular Season
Then: The season was 32 games long, with clubs playing opponents three or four times during the year.
Now: The league stretched its season into 34 games, with two or three regular season contests against in-conference opponents and once against non-conference adversaries.

The Countdown Clock
Then: Each half, the clock ran down from 45 minutes, while being paused during dead-ball situations. As soon as the clock reached 0:00, play was immediately stopped.

Now: The clock counts up from 0 to 45 in the first half and 45 to 90 in the second half, with no pauses or stops. Stoppage time is added at the end of each half to make up for breaks in play, at the referees discretion.

The Shootout
Then: Ties were not possible. If the teams were level at the end of regulation, players were placed 35 yards from goal with five seconds to put the ball past the opposing goalkeeper in a best-of-five series. A shootout win resulted in one point, as opposed to three points for a win in regulation.

Now: Teams level at the end of regulation are each awarded one point.

Soccer Specific Stadiums
Then: None of the 10 teams played in soccer-specific stadiums, typically renting out NFL or college football stadiums.

Now: Currently 14 of the 20 teams in MLS have soccer-specific stadiums, with plans to build more in the near future.

The Jerseys
Then: We’ll tell you one thing - jerseys in the 1996 Inaugural Season were undoubtedly flamboyant in comparison to the present day MLS kits.

Donning the club’s name proudly across their chests, teams like the Kansas City Wiz gave us rainbow jerseys to admire, while the San Jose Clash’s baggy, chartreuse tops were truly one of a kind.

Now: Jersey colors and patterns have toned down a bit, as clubs have turned to simpler, cleaner and ultimately more attractive threads to sport on the pitch. 

Goalkeeper Starting XI Poses
Then: During the 1996 inaugural MLS season, goalkeepers had a tendency to cross their arms over their chest and rest their hands on their shoulders for starting XI photos.

Why do you ask? We wish we could tell you!

While the crossed-arm pose remains a mystery to us all, modern day goalkeepers, such as David Bingham, lock arms with their fellow teammates as they await their customary pregame photo. 

Roster Sizes
Then: Final rosters had to be trimmed to 18 players.
Now: Each club is comprised of 28 players.

Salary Cap
Then: No player was allowed to make more than $192,500.
Now: In 2015, 22 players secured more than $1 million in guaranteed compensation, per the MLS Players Union.

League Attendance
Then: The average attendance at a Major League Soccer match was 17,406.
Now: Average attendance figures grew to 21,574 during the 2015 season.

The Evolution of the MLS Cup Trophy
Then: The 1996 MLS Cup champion D.C. United were awarded the Alan I. Rothenberg Trophy, the first-ever MLS Cup named after the former president of U.S. Soccer. This dark gold piece of hardware had two firm handles on each side of an MLS-branded soccer ball. 

Now: Today, MLS Cup champions are presented with the Philip F. Anschutz trophy, named after the co-founder of the league.