Looking back at the worst decisions in American soccer

Saturday July 27th, 2013

David Beckham's beginning with the L.A. Galaxy had plenty of hitches, and led to a lot of chaos.
Robert Mora/Getty Images

There's a good possibility that the NASL's 2014 championship game, the retro-branded Soccer Bowl, will be hosted by a team with a losing record.

That is, quite obviously, a terrible idea that would make the second-tier league a laughingstock. But that's the risk the NASL is taking with the competition format it unveiled on Friday.

It will take a six-week break over the summer (to avoid conflicting with the World Cup, it claimed) and will award Soccer Bowl hosting rights to the first place team after an abbreviated, 10-game "spring season".

Following the mid-season offseason, each team will play 20 more matches in an effort to earn the second title-game berth. That lengthy stretch will be irrelevant to the spring qualifier, which technically could lose all 20 games, finish with the league's worst full-year record and still play for the big trophy in November.

The NASL took a beating on Twitter following the announcement and a lively conversation ensued about the worst ideas in the history of American professional soccer. It turns out that the 2014 split season has some company.

So here's SI.com's look back at modern American soccer's own goals (we'll leave the old NASL to rest in peace) -- the most regrettable, embarrassing and silly decisions that the still-growing pro game has had to survive.

The "Americanized" Beginning
There were the regular-season shootouts -- not from the penalty spot, but from 35-yards away -- that resolved tie games. There was the clock that counted down to 00:00. There were the PA announcements during play, the silly team names and the over-reliance on suburban soccer families to buy tickets. None of these bad ideas were crippling on their own, but in sum they comprised an unnecessary and almost offensive departure from the sport as it was played by the rest of the world. All of these, thankfully, are things of the past.

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Branding Extremes: Speaking of silly team names, no discussion about bad ideas gets very far without someone sharing that infamous photo from the league's October 1995 unveiling. The uniforms, many of which looked like they were sewn together from multicolored pieces of scrap, were laughably garish. A lot of the team names -- Clash, Burn, Wiz, Mutiny -- were interchangeable, meaningless and childish. The league looked awful.

The knee-jerk response to that silliness has been just as disconcerting. A mad dash to be "clean" and "authentic" has resulted in a Real, a Sporting and several FCs. There's a good chance that a given MLS game will produce a matchup between a team wearing all-white and an opponent in all-red or all-blue, making it impossible to tell who's on the field immediately after turning on the TV. That's bad branding as well.

Several teams now have it right, of course, but MLS is still paying the price for those colorful early missteps.

Chivas USA: Like the Gotham City mob, MLS was desperate and turned to a man it didn't fully understand. The result -- the embarrassing albatross that is Chivas USA.

In 2004, the league's ninth season, it was still playing with only 10 teams (there were 12 from 1998 through 2001). MLS needed to grow and it needed investment, so Chivas and Real Salt Lake joined up for a mere $7.5 million each.

What MLS wouldn't do to get out of that arrangement now, after Jorge Vergara (and his former accomplices) have run their club into the ground. A poorly conceived brand that excludes so many potential fans was just the beginning. There have been terrible records, terrible attendance, eight head coaches and, more recently, a controversial effort to return to the club's "Guadalajara roots" that has resulted in a discrimination lawsuit and a high-profile HBO exposé.

Whatever good came from that $7.5 million nine years ago has long since been undone.

Beckham's Beginning: It all ended gloriously, which may lead many to forget how disastrous David Beckham's start really was. Much of the blame falls on the L.A. Galaxy, who made several decisions that caused chaos in the locker room.

Chief among them was the demotion of captain Landon Donovan and the Nov. 2007 hiring of coach Ruud Gullit, who lasted nine months and later admitted he couldn't handle the rules, restrictions and culture of American soccer.

It all seemed like style over substance as Beckham missed games through injury and then went on loan to AC Milan, Hollywood celebrities showed their famous faces and word leaked about the club's luxury travel arrangements.

It wasn't until Bruce Arena arrived in the summer of 2008 and re-set the Galaxy's priorities that it started to become about the soccer.

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Dan Borislow: Women's soccer has its Vergara, and he was even worse. Dan Borislow, the Florida telecommunications entrepreneur, almost single-handedly took down an entire league.

The sport's second attempt to put down a professional foundation, WPS, was undone in early 2012 thanks in large part to the uncertainty surrounding a legal battle with Borislow. He'd been booted from the league following a disastrous 2011 campaign during which he frequently refused to comply with WPS rules and insulted (and even threatened) executives, co-owners, media and players who questioned him. Eventually, members of his own team, Boca Raton-based magicJack, filed a grievance against him.

With lawsuits pending, the league struggling and fellow owners refusing to work with Borislow, WPS shut down.

Big League Delusions: Women's pro soccer's first go-around, the WUSA, also was badly mismanaged. The league was doomed by high salaries, big stadiums and a belief that fans would flock to cable TV (remember the PAX network?) to watch their heroes from the 1999 Women's World Cup. The WUSA behaved and spent like a major league, but the emperor had no clothes. It folded following its third season in 2003.

Bad Apples in the Big Apple: Take your pick -- Branco, Lothar Mattheus, Rafa Márquez -- New York Red Bulls fans have had to put up with some of the worst big-name foreign signings in league history.

To be fair, Juan Pablo Ángel, Thierry Henry and a couple of others have worked out. But a Mount Rushmore of terrible MLS acquisitions surely would have a significant New York presence.

Branco had three red cards in just 11 games. Mattheus, another World Cup winner, seemed interested in little more than cashing his paycheck and could be the worst European signing in MLS history. And Márquez, while great theater for fans around the league, was a self-destructive brat who turned Red Bull Arena into a circus.

Last year, Red Bulls fans also had to put with a league game scheduled at 1 PM on a Wednesday in July. It almost isn't fair.

Dragon Stadium: The Dallas Burn were building some momentum at the end of 2002. Playing at the legendary Cotton Bowl, Dallas had made the playoffs for the third straight season and enjoyed its highest average attendance since the inaugural campaign of 1996. But the club was losing money and with a new stadium still more than two years away, a fateful decision was made that would prioritize the short-term, crush that nascent momentum and set the team back by years..

The Burn spent 2003 playing at Dragon Stadium, a high school facility that had no atmosphere, an unsuitable field and which was located in suburban Southlake, more than 30 miles from the Cotton Bowl.

It was a disaster. Attendance plunged 40 percent, Dallas posted what remains the worst record in team history and president and GM Andy Swift left the club.

The Burn retreated back to the Cotton Bowl in '04 and moved to its new soccer-specific stadium in Frisco the following year, when it rebranded as FC Dallas. Even that didn't entirely erase the Southlake stain. FCD stumbled into its new stadium, where annual average attendance has exceeded 15,000 just once.

Colorado Rapids, Eastern Conference Champion: The debate over the right playoff format, or whether playoffs are necessary at all, will continue for as long as MLS is in business. But there should be no argument about the absurdity foisted upon us by the format employed from 2007 through 2011, when wild card qualifiers often were seeded into the other conference's bracket.

As a result, we celebrated the 2008 Western Conference champion New York Red Bulls, 2009 Eastern winner Real Salt Lake and the Rapids. Colorado's four-game run to the 2010 MLS Cup title from the seventh seed, which included a victory over the San Jose Earthquakes in the Eastern final, was a catalyst for a much-needed format changes in 2011 (the introduction of the wild card round) and 2012 (the end of conference switching).

It was a format that became harder and harder to justify with a straight face. It invited ridicule from the media, fans who bristled at the thought of playoffs to begin with and anyone with a basic understanding of geography.

MLS had to defend the validity of its champion. That's never a good place for a league to be in and like many of the struggles pro soccer has endured, it had nobody else to blame.

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