Commentary / MLS

The one thing MLS 1.0 got right

Photo by G. Newman Lawrence

It is October 13, 1996, in Kansas City, Mo.

Goalkeeper Garth Lagerway, with hair beaded and braided, protects his net. Behind him, “CHIEFS” is spray-painted in bright red and outlined in white. The crowd at Arrowhead Stadium waits.

Thirty-five yards away stands Los Angeles’ Greg Vanney, clad in the green and black and red and yellow jersey of the Galaxy. He has five seconds to beat Lagerway and clinch victory.

The Referee’s whistle echoes through the near-vacant venue and Vanney rushes forward. Lagerway races to meet him. The attacker’s shot glances off the keeper’s right and trickles over the goalmouth.

The Galaxy have won Game Two of the 1996 MLS Western Conference Final in a shootout, clinching their place in the league’s inaugural championship.

There remain consistent through-lines between today and that playoff moment 24 years ago. Vanney and Lagerway again squared off in last season’s final— the former as head coach of Toronto FC, and the latter as general manager and president of the now-reigning champion Seattle Sounders.

More, though, has changed for the better. Soccer specific stadiums reverberate with chants and cheers, replacing the half-empty football arenas of old. Gone, too, is the novelty shootout style which sought to reinvent the game.

History suggested professional soccer in the United States and Canada would fail. Instead, MLS has succeeded and thrived, expanding from 10 teams in 1996 to 30 clubs present day. As the league prepares for its 25th season, its growth and evolution are evident.

The venues are better. The players are better. The product is better.

But one thing is worse: MLS has lost its originality.

The hideously beautiful array of kits of the past became a victim of corporate partnership. Modern MLS kits offer little to suggest each uniform isn’t created from the same “paint by numbers” template.

Aesthetically bland jerseys, though, aren’t the league’s biggest problem.

Identity crisis

Inter Miami CF, one of MLS’ newest expansion sides, suffered a setback in their legal battle with Seria A’s Inter Milan regarding trademark infringement earlier this week.

According to, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office dismissed MLS’s and the South Florida side’s argument of “likely confusion.” The Italian club appears likely to win trademark ownership of “Inter.”

It begs this question: did Miami’s ownership choose “Inter” in an attempt to gain clout and legitimacy by creating a false connection with a European powerhouse which exudes clout and legitimacy.


Miami’s name is the most egregious example of MLS’s current naming trend, but not the first. The league now favors a European approach to branding over the “nickname” template more commonly used on this side of the Atlantic and in the infancy of MLS. Of the last nine expansion sides, all have incorporated either “FC,” “SC,” or “CF.” No new team has used a nickname since Montreal Impact joined MLS in 2012.

Overall, 15 of the league’s 27 clubs feature some variation of “football/soccer club.” There’s a “Dynamo,” a “Real,”  a “Sporting.,” and three “Uniteds.” Only eight teams use a nickname and nothing else.

At best, this new style is boring. It lacks invention and risk. It lacks effort. Names like Chicago Fire and Colorado Rapids try and connect with their city. Not every nickname is a winner, but at least they are unique.

At worst, the modern naming templates are parasitic. They seek to siphon the esteem and respectability of long-established organizations. They say it’s better to sound European than to be innovative.

Inter Miami’s success won’t be defined by a name. Los Angeles FC and Atlanta United took the league by force not because they eschewed an American approach to team branding, but because they created a hell of a product.

MLS doesn’t need to replicate anything or anyone. It needs to reclaim its originality.


  1. Interesting read, Nick. I think, like many things, the best path is one that doesn’t drift too far into either extreme. MLS 1.0 tried too hard to Americanize the sport. The bizarre running penalty shootout is a great example. The other side is trying too hard to give the league a whiff or the European with cribbed club names.

    I recall reading a good 6 or 7 years ago that MLS found the more authentic they keep the game and the experience, the better they do. The case study was the re-branding of Kansas City Wizards to Sporting Kansas City. It was more than a name, though. It was the soccer specific stadium and game day experiences that allowed for sections of ultras, visiting team sections, etc. and so forth.

    It’s tough to know, clearly for many MLS execs and marketers, when they’ve gone too far. I think the most important aspects are to keep the game and the league as close to essential as you can. MLS already has innovations here — conferences, MLS CUP, no pro/rel…. I think that’s as distinct as it should ever get. And I’m with you on the naming conventions. But let’s not turn the league into a circus. (Not suggesting you made that argument)

    • I would say that SKC turning into a perennial contender while playing in a world class stadium right when the rebrand happened had a lot more to do with the rebrands success than anything. Winning two open cups and a MLS cup in then past few years since the rebrand, and making the playoffs every year but this past season, had a lot to do with the success.
      If Sugarman hadn’t allowed Nowak to blow up a playoff team, and then Nick S to mismanage it afterwards, the narrative around the Union may be different too.

      • I agree with you. I’m also just noting what MLS has said its marketing is based on. That marketing team it owns, which came out of the KC rebrand if I’m not mistaken, has this program of authenticity as one of its guiding principals.

  2. OneManWolfpack says:

    I may be a little partial, but I think the Union – while “Union” isn’t extremely unique in it’s own right – is really an awesome name. It avoids the “FC, SC” stuff… it plays into the history of Philly, with the union/working class city idea… and also plays into the history of the nation as well. Just well done all around

    • Three specific historical iterations deserve mention. Ben Franklin’s vision for the colonies at the Albany Congress in 1754 produced the Join-or- Die cartoon of the vivisected rattlesnake. Philly’s role as capital during the war for Independence against the British as a symbol of Union. And of course its role as both industrial goods and manpower producer for the Union in the conflict most neutrally called the Civil War.

    • I really agree with this. In some ways it’s the best of both worlds, because Philadelphia Union sounds like a soccer team the way Union Berlin does, but it also fits American naming conventions and avoids that Real Salt Lake cringe. I’m all for an “authentic” soccer experience, but I don’t think an authentic American soccer experience has to be the same thing as a authentic European one, and when we ape European things just because we think that’s what you do in soccer it definitely doesn’t feel authentic to me.

  3. I am fully on board with dropping every FC, SC and CF from MLS names, as well as discarding the notion that we need to use euro naming conventions to be ‘authentic’.
    How in the world did anyone think that having three teams named ‘United’ in the same league was a good idea?
    This is an unfortunate trend in USL as well.

  4. good read and comments.

  5. Agree strongly that the trend is irritating, stupid and ultimately sad in giving away legitimacy of what has been created in only 25 years when no one thought it would fly.
    The one minor disagreement is DC United. As in “District of Columbia, United” States of America. It was the best nod to history of soccer and this country, and clever in an interesting but not irritating way (like the Metrostars or Tampa Bay Mutiny).
    The best name since 1.0 is the Union.

  6. I agree that the naming has strayed from the American aspect of sports. Soccer is 100 years behind in the States. I should say the tradition of soccer. Where every town has a team and it’s your team. So the tradition is just different in the States. But I feel the FC,SC,CF could all go away. As stated above…didn’t we fight for our independence!! ??

  7. I felt that MLS made conscious choice to differentiate from NASL and sound more professional. Don’t agree as I prefer the nicknames.
    My son’s last year of travel soccer we ran into several teams at tournaments that did same thing–official name was town and fc or united. No nicknames. One team the father told me the kids called themselves the Lions but only when coach wasn’t around. Sad the clubs and coaches feel need to remove joy even at this level.
    And now we have Union2″
    Lame lame lame.
    For MLS, Marketing managers that eschew nicknames should be put on same slow boat to nowhere along with the morons who think putting bimbo on a Philly jersey is smart marketing.

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