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3 MLS teams are celebrating 50 years of North American pro soccer this season

Well before Major League Soccer kicked off, the North American Soccer League was at the top of professional soccer in the United States. And in 1974, three new teams joined that fold: the Seattle Sounders, the Vancouver Whitecaps and the San Jose Earthquakes.

All three teams eventually morphed into MLS clubs, and this season the trio are celebrating a 50-year milestone.

The NASL was founded in 1967 and was the first successful top-tier league in the United States. The Whitecaps, Sounders and Earthquakes were among eight teams that joined in 1974 as the league rapidly expanded. All three teams drew more than 10,000 fans a game on average.

Much like Lionel Messi's impact on MLS with his signing last season by Inter Miami, the NASL had its own superstar join the league in 1975: the legendary Pele, who played three seasons with the New York Cosmos.

The NASL dissolved after the 1984 season and the three clubs had various incarnations in other leagues before joining MLS. But those NASL clubs became integral to the growth of soccer culture in the United States.

Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer remembered his dad playing on Sundays in an ethnic league of immigrants who brought their love of the sport to this country after Second World War.

“So the soccer culture, the soccer history — I think we’re getting to a point where all of that stuff is relevant to the growth of our sport as you fast forward now into another World Cup coming and all of the excitement about these major announcements for MLS clubs,” Schmetzer said. "Again, it’s just part of the growth of our sport in our country.”

For Earthquakes coach Luchi Gonzales, the anniversary celebration this season is about pride.

“We stay connected to members of this community and people that were involved in the club when it was in the NASL days. They come by and visit and we connect and it’s so important that we remember where this club comes from and what it took from the city and all the effort over the years, of staff and players, to make it what it is today," Gonzalez said.

A look at each club's roots as they celebrate their golden anniversaries:

WE THE NORTH

The Whitecaps claimed the city's first-ever pro sports title in 1979 when they won the NASL championship over the Tampa Bay Rowdies at Giants Stadium in New Jersey. Upon arrival back in Vancouver, they were treated to a parade on Robson Street that drew more than 100,000.

The Whitecaps played the first sporting event at BC Place in 1983, beating the rival Sounders 2-1 in front of 60,342 fans.

After the NASL folded, the Whitecaps joined the Canadian Soccer League as the Vancouver 86ers. That team went undefeated for 46 matches between 1988-89.

The team, which readopted the Whitecaps nickname in 2000, bounced around different leagues in the ensuing years. But in 2009, it was announced that Vancouver would become the 17th team in MLS, kicking off in 2011.

THE EMERALD CITY

A contest to name the new NASL team resulted in the Seattle Sounders. The runner-up, a few years before the baseball team, was the Seattle Mariners.

The Sounders hosted the first sellout in NASL history in their first season when they drew 13,498 fans to Memorial Stadium for a regular-season game against the Philadelphia Atoms.

In 1975, Portland joined the NASL and supporters of the Timbers, Sounders and Whitecaps created a trophy for the winner of the three-way rivalry that still exists in the MLS era, the Cascadia Cup.

The Sounders moved in 1976 to the Kingdome, which was also home to the NFL's Seahawks. The first game at the stadium was between the Sounders and the Cosmos, attended by more than 58,000 fans because of Pele, who scored a pair of goals in the 3-1 Cosmos victory.

Seattle joined MLS in 2009 and won titles in 2016 and 2019.

SHAKING SAN JOSE

The Earthquakes were originally supposed to be based in San Francisco, but they moved to San Jose State's Spartan Stadium and drew the NASL's best average attendance in 1974.

In 1996, San Jose became one of the original MLS teams. Then known as the Clash, San Jose played in the first-ever MLS game on April 6, a 1-0 victory over D.C. United at Spartan Stadium. U.S. team star Eric Wynalda scored the lone goal.

The team went back to the Earthquakes name after the 1999 season.

In 2001, the Quakes acquired Landon Donovan on loan from Bayer Leverkusen and won the MLS Cup title. They won it again with Donovan in 2003.

“The moment you get drafted or you sign here, you walk in and you hear so much about some of the legends that played here, the great stories, the rivalry games,” said current Quakes forward Ousseni Bouda. “You can really feel the history of the club."

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AP Sports Writer Tim Booth in Seattle contributed to this report

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AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer

Anne M. Peterson, The Associated Press