When D.C. United became a charter member of Major League Soccer in 1996, it was born into a world of MetroStars and Clashes and Wizes and Burns.
United was the lone franchise of the original 10 to pick a traditional worldwide soccer name – a before-its-time concept that has become a league trend.
The latest to follow was Seattle Sounders FC, which flew to Washington, D.C., on Thursday and will meet D.C. United in an MLS regular-season match at 4:30 p.m. Saturday.
“Back then, (some of the league’s founders were) taking a lot of their lead from a lot of the equipment manufacturers who felt strongly that we needed to be this cool cutting-edge irreverent sort of product,” United president Kevin Payne said.
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“And we always believed exactly the opposite. First of all, we believed there were millions of American soccer fans who were just waiting for an opportunity to support a team of their own. But we thought they wanted to support teams that looked like the teams that they watched on television from abroad.”
Payne’s vision proved to be the right one. Soon, the San Jose Clash nodded to its local history by becoming the Earthquakes. The Dallas Burn became FC Dallas. Recent expansion teams have followed suit: Real Salt Lake, Toronto FC and Sounders FC, which combined the established local nickname with the European “football club” designation.
“We always thought it was a mistake to kind of miss (tying in with the international customs),” Payne said. “And the league, to their credit, realized that some time ago. And that’s why you see team names that harkens much more to the heritage of football now, of soccer.
“We’ve gotten away from the Mutiny and the Clash, and we’ve got Seattle Sounders FC and Toronto FC, the Philadelphia Union. I think we’ve gotten to a much better place in terms of presenting ourselves and what we represent than we were when the league started.”
But while United nailed the name, it botched the crest.
At a time when most of the league was letting equipment manufacturers develop its look, United went its own way.
And it came up with an original crest showing an eagle holding three soccer balls.
At best, the eagle looked more scrawny than inspiring. At worst, the crest looked, well, Payne refers to it at “German looking,” but some critics went beyond that.
“There was some sensitivity to people saying, ‘Well, it’s too German looking,’ – I don’t think anybody credible said it was Nazi looking,” Payne said. “At the end of the day, we decided to change it for the second season.”
At first glance, the changes are subtle. The eagle has put on some weight. He looks left instead of right. His wings are raised. Two of the soccer balls are gone.
But there is more here than may meet the eye.
“The eagle’s wings are lifted in the second season, so it was symbolic of the fact that our team and our league was now aloft,” Payne said.
“And we replaced the three balls ... with one ball that was central to the image. And that one ball and star represents the first-ever championship of Major League Soccer. Our position was that there would only ever be one first champion, and that was us. And we were going to make that a core element of our logo, but more importantly of our brand.
“That happens to be the truth, because I happened to make the decision. “It was a forward look.”
Don Ruiz, 253-597-8808