By Michael Lewis Editor

Has it been 25 years already?

So much was on the line when Major League Soccer kicked off its much anticipated first season on April 6, 1996.

MLS was the first First Division league in the United States since the North American Soccer League went to the great soccer league in the sky after the 1984 season. Despite the presence of Pele and other international stars, despite the presence of the star-studded Cosmos and despite the growth of some franchises, the ambitious league got too close to the sun and slowly, but surely, burned up.

I was there for the denouement of the NASL and it wasn’t pretty. Buoyed by the success of the Cosmos and some other teams, the league overexpanded to 24 teams in 1978, only to see the league dwindled to 14 teams in its final season.

There were many other factors in the league’s demise, leaving many observers, including yours truly, skeptical as to whether another big-time soccer league could make it in this country?

It took 12 years before another league with great hopes and dreams was created – MLS. When FIFA awarded the United States the 1994 World Cup, one of the stipulations was to establish a First Division league. Of course, hosting the tournament was the top priority with the league scheduled to kick off in 1995. It was put off for a year.

So, April 6, 1996 the American soccer university had great expectations as the San Jose Clash and D.C. United took the field at Spartan Stadium that night.

This was my lede for the New York Daily News (written on deadline from the west coast)

SAN JOSE – Not only did striker Eric Wynalda gave the San Jose Clash a victory last night, but he also saved Major League Soccer an embarrassing result in its inaugural game.

Wynalda’s goal with 2:58 remaining lifted the Clash to a 1-0 victory over D.C. United as big-time professional soccer returned to the United States after a 12-year absence.

No one would have blamed commissioner Doug Logan had he breathed a sigh of relief afterwards.

“I don’t think we could have written a better script with a better ending,” he said. “Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be? He’s a star and he’s supposed to score goals like that.”

MLS, born out of a highly successful World Cup, is the last attempt at establishing a big-time soccer league in this country.

The last thing the fledgling league needed was a scoreless tie before both teams entered a shootout, which certainly would have reminded critics of Brazil’s penalty-kick triumph over Italy in the final two years ago.

Has MLS made it?

Well, yes and no.

It survived a near fatal shutdown after the 2001 season, when both Florida teams – Miami Fusion (which played in Fort Lauderdale) and Tampa Bay Mutiny – were jettisoned as league dropped from 12 to 10 teams.

Most of the league’s teams was owned by what – four or five owners, not the healthiest situation.

Slowly, but surely, franchises were added, and it is now a healthy 27 teams, with three more expansion teams to be added by 2023.

But like it or not, soccer is a world game and the quality of the league, which has improved, still pales in comparison to the likes of the English Premier League, Serie A, Bundesliga and La Liga.

Perhaps someday it will be considered one of the great soccer leagues in the world.

But consider the alternative.

Twelve years in the desert for many American soccer fans was long enough.