MLS at 20: Sunrise on football's final frontier?

    Story highlights

    • The 20th MLS season begins this weekend
    • League has changed dramatically since its inception in 1996
    • Some question whether rules regarding salary caps and transfers need to change

    (CNN)On the 6th of April 1996, San Jose Clash and DC United strode out in front of 31,683 expectant fans at the Spartan Stadium in San Jose, California.

    The historic occasion was the first ever Major League Soccer match -- a brave new dawn for the world's favorite sport in a land its charms had yet to conquer.
      Summarizing the action for ESPN, commentator Ty Keough eagerly described the momentous "birth of a new era for American soccer."
      Looking back at footage from that balmy evening now it's hard not to feel a certain nostalgia. Baggy shirts, questionable hairstyles and strange rule adaptations to make games more exciting were all part of the formative MLS experience.
      Countdown clocks were employed to provide drama at the end of each half. Even more bizarrely, tied games were settled by shootouts that saw attacking players run with the ball from 35-yards out before attempting to beat the opposing goalkeeper.
      U.S. Major League Soccer kicks off  20th season
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      Soccer revolution

      As the MLS prepares to mark the beginning of its 20th season, it's hard to comprehend just how much the league has progressed in the intervening period.
      Long gone is the desire to tamper with the rules of the game for a start. Attendances are higher than ever before while the number of teams involved has doubled from 10 in the 1996 campaign to 20 in 2015. A further four are set to be added by 2020.
      Landon Donovan raises the MLS Cup for the sixth -- and last -- time following LA Galaxy's 2014 victory over New England Revolution.
      On top of this, the new season is the first of a new domestic TV and media rights deal with FOX, ESPN and Univision worth $700 million over eight years.
      This figure may pale beside the $5.1 billion recently paid by UK broadcasters for the English Premier League, the richest football league in the world, but it represents a tripling in value of the previous MLS deal.
      According to Phil Rawlins, co-primary owner and president of the new MLS franchise, Orlando City Soccer Club, "the industry and the game itself has moved on dramatically" in the U.S.. He believes what would equal 50 years growth in most other industries has been experienced in the first two decades of the MLS.
      Rawlins' club is a prime example of this rapid transformation. He describes players being pushed out of changing facilities because of a schedule clash with a yoga class not so long ago.
      This weekend 60,000 fans are expected to witness Orlando City's opening weekend fixture against New York City, another new club making their MLS bow. World Cup winners Kaka and David Villa will turn out for Orlando and New York City respectively.
      "We're just on the crest of the wave at the moment," Rawlins said of football's American progress. "Can it be the number two, number three sport in this country? Yes, I think it can. And it can be in a short space of time."
      These positive assertions are backed by the huge interest U.S. fans showed in last year's World Cup in Brazil.
      Team USA's group stage clash with Portugal attracted 25 million viewers, according to figures from TV ratings firm, Nielsen. That's considerably more than the 15 million baseball's 2013 World Series averaged on FOX or the similar audience that tuned into the 2014 NBA finals on ABC.
      Thousands of fans gather in Chicago's Grant Park to watch the USA compete in the 2014 World Cup on big screens.
      Anyone who saw 20,000 pumped-up young fans pack out Chicago's Grant Park to cheer on their country via big screens, meanwhile, would find it hard to argue against soccer in the U.S. now being anything other than a big deal.

      Building the brand

      Reaching this promising stage, however, has been anything but a smooth ride. The MLS was reported to have lost as much as $250 million in its first five years while average attendances initially dwindled after the inaugural season.
      Three teams -- Miami Fusion, Tampa Bay Mutiny (both in 2001) and Chivas USA (2014) -- were disbanded along the way due to a mixture of lack of fan interest and ownership troubles.
      A report by Forbes at the end of 2013, meanwhile, claimed that only 10 out of 19 MLS teams were profitable. And as recently as this week, MLS players looked like they could be going on strike over wages and the right of players to become free agents when their contracts end.
      Then there's the way the league develops, attracts and trades players.
      A salary cap restricts the amount teams can spend on playing squads. Each side, however, has a number of spaces that can be allocated to "off budget" signings which are not included within the cap.
      This includes promising Generation Adidas players who enter the MLS through the draft systems before completing their college education. Homegrown players from club's development academies are also exempt as are a maximum of three designated players (DPs), usually stellar international names whose wages and transfer fees will be covered by club owners or sponsors.
      One of the main criticisms of the MLS and its complex player acquisition rulebook is that while it does entice prominent stars of the game like David Beckham, Freddie Ljungberg and Thierry Henry to appear in the MLS, it only does so when their careers are on a downward trajectory.
      Why would an exceptional player want to move to a league that can only attract a handful of top talents at any one time, after all?
      David Beckham waves to fans as he walks off the pitch after the Los Angeles Galaxy defeat the Huston Dynamo in the 2012 MLS Cup.
      And herein lies one of the leagues biggest challenges in attracting and keeping the talented players fans want to see.
      Although the likes of the salary cap encourages fiscal probity, it means MLS teams are restricted by rules clubs in other markets are not.
      Head coach of Sporting Kansas, Peter Vermes, highlighted these difficulties in comments carried by the Kansas City Star newspaper last year. "We're in a place where at times you can't compete with foreign clubs because of the kind of dynamics they have in regards to finances. We have a salary cap. They don't," Vermes said.

      Transfer model

      According to Paulo Teixeira, a football agent who has worked to bring in and sell players from the league in recent years, current philosophies with regards player-trading may be have to be tweaked to help the MLS grow yet further.
      He describes the importance of placing an emphasis on attracting younger players with European passports. Such talented individuals will have a sell-on value that can be recouped by the league and their clubs if they move on from the MLS to the biggest and wealthiest leagues across the Atlantic.
      Theoretically, at least, this money can then be reinvested in the league, player development and attracting yet more promising players to the MLS. This in turn will raise the standard further.
      An early example of this strategy can perhaps be found in the transfer of Oriol Rossell, a Spanish midfielder who moved from Sporting Kansas to Sporting Lisbon last year in a deal brokered by Teixeira.
      Rossell arrived on a free transfer aged 20 after being released by FC Barcelona in 2012. He excelled at Kansas, winning the MLS Cup before being sold to the Portuguese giants at a profit in June 2014.
      Teixeira is quick to make clear such plans would need good scouting systems to truly flourish. It could also be achieved by signing DPs closer to the peak stage of their career, he added.
      This last point is something that appears be happening already. "Before they used to have a lot of big names who could no longer run in Europe," Teixeira said.
      "(But) Villa is not an old guy, (Frank) Lampard is still going strong" and both could still offer something to teams in Europe, he said by way of example of New York City's first DP signings.
      Nevertheless, he continued, the signing of more young players with big potential "is probably something we'll see more of."
      Whether Teixeira is correct will become apparent in the months and years ahead.
      Either way, that brave new MLS dawn that broke over San Jose back in 1996 has turned into a bright morning.