MLS has come a long way in 19 seasons

Robbie Keane, right, in action for LA. (J Pat Carter/AP)

As old as it makes me feel, I am inclined to reminisce this week, thinking back all those years ago when I first began in this business. The year was 1997, and I specifically remember writing a script for the MLS Cup final. DC United beat the Colorado Rapids 2-1, I can’t be sure but I think Elliotte Friedman had the pleasure of voicing the highlights.

That’s about it, though. I won’t sugar coat it: I didn’t follow MLS back in those days. In fact I probably made some extremely unfair remarks about it at the time, after all MLS was a burgeoning league that still didn’t really capture the imagination of those who weren’t hard-core fans.

It has been quite the seventeen years for the League since. Yet, here I am doing my due diligence and researching ahead of a new MLS season, the nineteenth of its existence. I am now a fan, and it is a League I follow closely. A League that has climbed enormous mountains since those early days and that has plans to scale yet more heights. This isn’t the finished product by a long way, and while MLS certainly has many faults, chances are if you tune into a match this season you’ll enjoy a good quality contest between two decent teams with a sprinkling of star power thrown in.

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Ten years after that initial highlight pack was written, I found myself sitting at several press conferences concerned with the birth of Toronto FC. Scallywags (a superb pub, home to many fans) hosted one such presser, I believe it was to announce the arrival of Mo Johnston as the team’s first GM and coach, the man to lead the new club to glorious heights. Ahem. I distinctly remember storm clouds rolling in that day, and a huge torrential downpour almost frying the audio boards. No, that wasn’t some mean-hearted metaphor attacking Mo Johnston. It actually happened.

What a journey it’s been following TFC since. Yet ahead of the first matchday of the new season, which rather conveniently coincides with a bye-week for the team, here we are actually considering the chances TFC could be a genuine contender this season. I hope so, I really do— not because I have any allegiance to the club, but for all the die-hards I know. And especially those poor media hacks who have to deal with the club on a daily basis. For God’s sake give them one enjoyable year.

Vancouver eventually followed Toronto into the MLS fray, and TFC’s dysfunction made the Whitecaps’ professionalism look all the better. Already storied in the annals of Canadian Soccer, the ‘Caps arrived with a solid foundation, they knew how to run a football club and what it took to win. While TFC had Mo’s statue to build, Vancouver already had its figurehead in Bob “Mr. Canadian Soccer” Lenarduzzi. It had a sports legend in Steve Nash and a dash of English soccer experience in Paul Barber. It is amazing what a bit of credibility can do for a club, especially on those dark days that any expansion club experiences.

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When Montreal arrived a year later, they too had that foundation already built, and knew what it took. And while TFC’s early days were highlighted by insanity, and the ‘Caps screamed professionalism, the Impact brought swagger. Owner Joey Saputo has always been intent on doing it his way, and if that upset the status quo then too bad. Montreal has been criticized for a lack of long-term planning (three coaches in three years isn’t exactly stability) but dammit they try things. Alessandro Nesta playing in Canada? Are you kidding me?! Sad to see the great man hang ‘em up, but what a fun year it was. And, since I had the privilege of covering Serie A, I knew before Marco Di Vaio arrived just how underrated he was, a beast of a player and one of my favourites. To see him completely dominate MLS defences, well, it came as no surprise.

Sure the Impact aren’t perfect, but there was something about those utterly chaotic and violent scenes at the final whistle of their loss to Houston in the playoffs last season that just felt right, fitting, more so than if it had been Toronto or Vancouver. The Impact are unpredictable and passionate. It’s who they are

After all that, now we’re here. The 2014 MLS season kicks off this weekend, light years removed from the early days when the league was new and low on respect. Some people still haven’t come around. The haters gonna hate. But that’s OK: they don’t know what they’re missing.

James Sharman hosts Soccer Central, weeknights on Sportsnet World and Sportsnet ONE at 7 pm ET. Follow him on Twitter.

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