For a full decade from 1984 to 1994, the USA was plunged into something of a footballing dark age. Though a handful of local semi-professional outdoor and indoor leagues remained, they were mired in virtual obscurity. The loss of the NASL left a gaping chasm.

In 1994 that all changed. The United States was gifted the honours of hosting the 15th FIFA World Cup finals and the pressure was on to prove the notoriously non-football nation could make a real go of it. One of the conditions laid down by FIFA was that the US establish a professional football league.

A little over a year after a dazzling finals, in which stadiums were jam-packed and the USA reached the second round for the first time in nearly fifty years, Major League Soccer became a reality.

With 10 teams in 10 cities across the country, the league - run in a single entity format and strictly controlling player transfers and money issues - began its inaugural season. With low salaries compared to other major American sports and a desperate desire to avoid turning the league into the elephants' graveyard that some perceive the NASL to have been, things began slowly and with a far more realistic business plan.

Starting at home
With a desire to make the game stronger in the States from the inside out, a heavy focus was placed on home-grown talent.  By the start of the first season, there were more registered soccer players in the country than any other sport.

Alexi Lalas - who after lining up for the USA in the '94 finals became the first American to play in Italy before returning to play in MLS with New England Revolution and LA Galaxy - put the difference between the NASL and MLS in perspective in a  recent interview with FIFA.com .

"I was exposed - as a kid - to the tail end of the NASL," he said.  "The Detroit Express was around then and that was my team, their star player was an Englishmen called Trevor Francis. He was a great player and the star of the team, but quite frankly there was no connection between him and me. He wore these cool white shoes but I, as an American kid, had nothing in common with him…when I became a pro, kids in the States could identify with me because I was just like them and grew up playing the game here (in the US)."

Now the General Manager of MLS outfit MetroStars - based in New York/New Jersey and considered the younger brother to the old Cosmos - Lalas is a key figure in the evolution of Major League Soccer. 

"If you took some of our players and teams and plopped them down in the best stadiums in the world with their crowds and changed their uniforms, you wouldn't see much of a difference," he added, confident of the league's quality and status.

Club to country
Though it is unfair to say that the NASL had no effect on the US national team program, it is pure fact that MLS has had a major impact on the team's fortunes. Landon Donovan (San Jose Earthquakes, LA Galaxy), DaMarcus Beasley (former Chicago Fire), Brian McBride (former Columbus Crew) are just a few examples of current American stars who cut their teeth in the now nearly-11-year old league. Bruce Arena's current USA squad is comprised almost entirely of players who currently - or at one time - plied their trade in MLS.  And though the boss still claims, "we need more players at club's in Europe" he is keen to point to MLS as a key factor in the country's recent success on the international stage.

Long gone are the days of university men and players toiling in obscurity in the second divisions of Switzerland and Germany swelling the ranks of the US national team. The newest generation of players  - the likes of Donovan, Eddie Johnson and Freddy Adu - grew up with MLS as a part of their sporting consciousness and supporting their local teams.

Beginning as tenants in cavernous American football stadiums, most MLS teams are now playing in, or in the building or planning stages, of having their own scaled-down, more modest grounds. Ownership of their own stadiums creates a sense of separation and freedom for the clubs, while helping the teams control revenue streams with an eye toward increased profits - a sensible course of action never even contemplated back in the NASL glory days.

Since MLS' inception, only two teams have folded and a recent expansion saw two new teams added before the start of the 2005 season (Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA with the San Jose Earthquakes relocating to Texas as Houston 1836). There are currently 12 teams in Major League Soccer, competing - as in the old NASL - in two 'conferences (East and West) and in a play-off style system culminating in a one-off 'MLS Cup' match mimicking the NASL's annual 'Soccer Bowl'.

Old stars still the rum in the punch
But as in the old days, a few aging stars have made their way over to play - and most have found it no easy task getting a full-time spot in their side. Currently, France 1998 FIFA World Cup winner Youri Djorkaeff is plying his trade, fittingly, in New York.

Other notable foreign stars to have played in MLS include Walter Zenga, Carlos Valderama, Roberto Donadoni and Marco Etcheverry. But with limits on salaries and cool efficiency a pervasive sentiment, nothing has as of yet, gotten out of hand. 

David Beckham - perhaps the modern game's biggest name - has even expressed an interest in coming to America. "It's a tremendous sporting market and I would love to be a part of the growing football in the United States at some point," he remarked in a recent interview with American television at LA Galaxy's Home Depot Center. "I can't say for sure when, but let's just wait and see what happens."

As the game develops in the States, the future of American club football may lie somewhere in between the heady indulgence of the NASL and the modest savvy of early MLS.  With an average attendance of 15,000, Major League Soccer has already exceeded that of the old NASL, even with the bloated numbers who came in droves to see the fabled Cosmos in their glorious heyday.

MLS Champions:
1996 DC United
1997 DC United
1998 Chicago Fire
1999 DC United
2000 Kansas City Wizards
2001 San jose Earthquakes
2002 Los Angeles Galaxy
2003 San Jose Earthquakes
2004 DC United
2005 LA Galaxy

For more information on MLS, visit the League's official website: www.mlsnet.com