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 By Marc Stein

MLS nearly folded in 2001 - FC Dallas president Dan Hunt

Major League Soccer, now in its 21st season and home to 20 clubs, nearly folded in 2001, according to FC Dallas president and co-owner Dan Hunt.

In an interview with "ESPN Soccer Today" on 103.3 FM in Dallas, Hunt said that the league -- having just completed its sixth season amid millions in operating losses -- had essentially decided to cease operations before his late father, Lamar Hunt, convinced his fellow owners to carry on.

"My very first phone call when I was working for the family ... November of 2001, we're in the [Kansas City] Chiefs' offices," Hunt told the show. "It's my dad Lamar, brother Clark, myself, John Wagner. It's my very first day on the job and we're having a league call in November and the league folded. On my very first day on the job, it went out of business.

"They were preparing the documents and that was it. My brother looks over at me and in typical big brother fashion goes, 'Congratulations, you've been hired and fired on the same day' with a big smile, although it wasn't quite big enough because the situation was pretty grave. My dad was able to call everybody, get 'em back, and within 48 hours everybody was back all in.

"And now you have a league today where the number of people who want to buy a franchise and build a soccer-specific stadium is more than I think we'll probably ever have in this league. I don't know where it winds up, people ask me all the time. I think the NFL number of 32 [franchises] is great for a lot of different reasons."

The MLS nearly folded in 2001 before Dan Hunt's late father, Lamar Hunt, seen here at right in 1966 on the day of the AFL's merger into the NFL, convinced his fellow owners to carry on.

In the winter of 2001, MLS had just 12 clubs, with the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny struggling so badly that they would ultimately be contracted. But Hunt insists that his late father, as he did in the 1960s as an owner and principal founder in the old American Football League, managed to rally enough support to keep the league alive.

"Yeah, I mean that was it," Hunt said. "It was, 'Call the bankruptcy attorneys and then we're going to fold the league.' And I think maybe they called some attorneys; in fact I know they probably did. And my dad, though, just like the old days of the AFL, I mean literally the AFL was going out of business every year and he would talk people into staying for one more year."

Lamar Hunt owned both the Columbus Crew and the Kansas City Wizards in those early MLS days. In the interview with Soccer Today, Dan Hunt marveled at where the league is health-wise now by comparison, insisting that significant expansion is realistic.

"There's been that mission statement of being one of the best leagues in the world out there by 2022," Hunt said. "... Talking about another 10 years where you're at 2026, the league is obviously going to be a lot bigger and it could be that 32 teams I talked about, or it could be 28.

"I think we have to be mindful in the expansion because of the talent pool. I don't think it's a very good idea for U.S. Soccer to increase the number of international players in the league at this time. It's just my belief because I want to develop American players."

Among the reasons for Hunt's optimism, he says, is the number of "people calling [and] lobbying for franchises all the time."

Hunt said: "And the international demand for our TV rights is pretty amazing actually. It sort of, I would say, surprised us all and I'm excited about that opportunity.

"The TV rights need to grow here domestically, that's really important. [But] I think the market globally could be as big potentially as the domestic market and that'll be a really great place for Major League Soccer."

ESPN Radio Dallas' Saad Yousuf contributed to this report.

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