With MLS set to expand to 24 clubs by 2020, Eight by Eight’s Chase Woodruff urges the league to not just grow bigger, but to grow smarter
“Is the MLS [sic] over-expanding?” asks a post on BigSoccer, the Internet’s boisterous Grand Bazaar of American soccer fandom. With four more clubs set to join Major League Soccer over the next few years, the author wonders, does the league really “have the talent pool and potential fan base to move into all these new markets?” Is it in danger of overplaying its hand, setting up shop in cities where it has no business being, just as the National Hockey League once did two decades ago?
What’s noteworthy about these questions is not that they were asked, but when they were asked: in 2006, when MLS teams could be found in all of twelve cities. It’s safe to say the league didn’t share BigSoccer’s concerns. It could hardly have expanded more aggressively than it has over the last decade, awarding new franchises at a rate of about one per year to grow from twelve clubs to its current twenty, with plans for another four to join before 2020.
Up to this point, there’s been every reason to believe that this strategy has paid off. No recent expansion has been an outright bust, and several—Seattle, Portland, and perhaps now Orlando—have proven wildly successful. The league as a whole, of course, has never been healthier, with attendance and ratings ticking upwards, broadcast and sponsorship revenues soaring, and franchise values rising into the hundreds of millions. And if there’s one thing MLS doesn’t get nearly enough credit for, it’s the way the league has managed to both grow in size and raise its level of play; imagine the quality we’d see if the current talent pool were spread out across the ten clubs that made up the league as recently as 2004.
Through it all, however, an undercurrent of anxiety has persisted among the league’s most dedicated fans. This isn’t a symptom of the boundless insecurity to which the American soccer fan has long been prone—or at least it’s not entirely that. We’d be fools to ignore the lessons of the NHL’s rapid expansion in the 1990s, which gave us watered-down hockey, the Atlanta Thrashers, and two devastating lockouts. And while its bloated size was far from its only problem, the old North American Soccer League briefly reached 24 clubs between 1978 and 1980 before utterly imploding and folding less than five years later. It’s no surprise, then, that fears about overexpansion are beginning to boil over as MLS approaches that same threshold.
It hasn’t helped that a few blemishes have started to appear on the league’s generally solid track record. The potential pitfalls of ill-considered expansion were all too evident in the Bronx on Sunday; a raucous crowd of 43,507 witnessed the long-awaited return of domestic soccer to the five boroughs, but the excitement of New York City FC’s home debut was dampened by the limitations—both practical and aesthetic—of its timeshare arrangement at Yankee Stadium. NYCFC’s champagne self-image is a poor match for the beer-budget awkwardness of its narrow pitch, Picasso-esque sightlines, and a camera angle that gives the impression of the world’s most expensive high school team. (And all this before their roommates get home.)
In its haste to launch a second New York club and collect City Football Group and the New York Yankees’ $100 million expansion fee, the league abandoned the strict stadium requirements it had previously placed on new clubs, and the result is a step backwards for a league that has worked hard to move away from its ugly early days of gridiron lines and half-empty stadium bowls. If fans continue to show up in droves and a stadium deal gets done relatively soon, that’s a fair trade for a few seasons of lousy optics and tactical claustrophobia. But those are big ifs, and it’s a big gamble to take for a league that has long charted a safer course.
There’s a similar level of risk in expanding to Atlanta, a big, crowded market with little discernible interest in soccer. Starting in 2017, an as-yet-unnamed new club will share a 71,000-seat venue with the NFL’s Falcons, and while small deposits have reportedly been made on more than 19,000 season tickets through its “Founder’s Club” program, that’s a conspicuously higher level of support than the city has yet shown for the NASL’s Atlanta Silverbacks, who managed to draw an average of 3,751 fans per game last fall. For all the hope that Atlanta could become the next Seattle, it could just as easily replicate the lackluster atmosphere of New England’s Gillette Stadium—or worse.
But there’s hope that MLS hasn’t completely lost its sense. Monday brought confirmation that the league is in “advanced discussions” to award its 23rd franchise to an ownership group led by NASL side Minnesota United, rejecting a competing bid from the owners of the Minnesota Vikings. The choice between the two bids was stark. The Vikings’ plan would have seen a brand-new club compete in their cavernous indoor NFL stadium due to be completed next year; United brings an existing club infrastructure and fanbase and plans to construct a soccer-specific outdoor venue in downtown Minneapolis. Opting for grassroots over astroturf—perhaps quite literally, in this case—is exactly the kind of decision MLS should continue to make.
Once finalized, a Minnesota expansion sets up a highly interesting showdown between the USL’s Sacramento Republic FC and David Beckham’s Miami investment group for franchise number twenty-four. Will it choose an established, well-supported club in a relatively small market, or gamble on a high-profile, big-city bid where MLS has already failed once and recent attempts to finalize a stadium plan have proven downright Sisyphean? The choice will speak volumes, and judging by the league’s recent history, it could go either way.
Commissioner Don Garber says that an official announcement will be made within the next month or two. Beyond these immediate expansion plans, however, loom far larger questions about the league’s long-term vision and its place on the world stage. Either Sacramento or Miami is about to be left in the cold, and joining it are Las Vegas, St. Louis, San Antonio, Indianapolis, and plenty of other cities looking for top-flight football. Though Garber said as recently as 2013 that 30 clubs (which would bring MLS in line with the NHL, NBA, and Major League Baseball) “seems like too many,” it’s increasingly hard to imagine that the league won’t get there eventually.
It’s an awkward, if by now very familiar, position that the league finds itself in: caught between the norms of world soccer and those of American sports. With the exception of Argentina’s much-maligned experiment with a 30-team Primera Division this year, no professional circuit worth mentioning presently exceeds the English Championship’s 24 clubs, and no top flight has fielded more than twenty since the Premier League’s contraction in 1995. But neither has a stable first division yet existed in a country with four times as many people as Germany, an economy eight times the size of Brazil’s, and twice the landmass of the entire European Union.
Can MLS truly hope to compete with the best leagues in the world if its talent is spread so thin? What of the revamped USL and its plans to expand to 40 clubs and gain second-division status? From practical concerns like conference alignment and the impact of so much transcontinental travel on international recruitment to purist bugaboos like a balanced schedule and even the white whale of promotion and relegation, the maturation American soccer pyramid resolves a few issues and raises a whole set of new ones.
When Major League Soccer was an afterthought both at home and abroad, we didn’t need to ask these questions. But if it plans on living up to its lofty ambitions, the league is going to have to answer them. For now, with its profile rising and an unprecedented number of new markets clamoring for its product, it seems that bigger is better—as long as it’s also smarter.