Major League Soccer was in rough shape in the early years of this century. The league had lost an estimated $250 million over its first five years of existence. Average attendance and television ratings peaked in its first season in 1996 before falling off. The expected bump from the international success of the U.S. men’s national team never materialized, at least partially because a squad comprising mostly MLS players finished in last place at the 1998 World Cup.
Things got so bad that the league actually decided to fold after the 2001 season and didn’t tell anyone.
“We were having a league call in November and the league folded,” FC Dallas President Dan Hunt told the Soccer Today podcast, via a Fox Sports transcription. “It went out of business, they were preparing the documents and that was it.”
It took some rallying by one owner, Lamar Hunt, to resuscitate the league. Hunt, who owned both the Kansas City Wizards and Columbus Crew at the time, called up the league’s owners and got things going again over the next 48 hours, and soon the league was making a number of moves that stabilized its existence. In January 2002, low-performing teams in Tampa and Miami were folded, leaving the league with just 10 members. More and more teams began to build right-sized soccer-only stadiums, moving out of the American football stadiums that they struggled to fill.
Plus, the U.S. men made a surprising run to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup, sparking a resurgence of interest in the sport. Soon the league was expanding again; it now stands at 20 teams, with three more expansion franchises in the pipeline over the next two years.
MLS is stable again, but for a few days in 2001, its future was anything but assured.