By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 3, 2014) US Soccer Players – During Tuesday’s State of the League roundtable, MLS commissioner Don Garber underlined the league’s expansion priority. Garber said the league would reach 24 teams before the end of the decade, requiring adding two more teams after the expansion class of 2017. That means an increase of 14 teams since the league contracted following the 2001 season. In essence, under Garber’s leadership MLS has created a new version of the league. Not an MLS 2.0 or 3.0, but an ongoing MLS expansion effort that’s more than doubled the number of teams.
Garber’s comments were in response to a question from Fox Soccer’s Rob Stone, asking whether 24 would be it.
“We’re not a mature business. We’re not a mature league. I think that x number of years from now, and whether that’s two years from now, five years from now, ten years from now, twenty-five years from now… however long that is. You would imagine that there would be major markets in this country that would have a division 1 professional team and that MLS fans would be able to be connected in the United States. Similarly in Canada where we have markets that have interest in the game at the highest level. But I can’t answer that today because I don’t have all the answers about what our future will look like.” MLS commissioner Don Garber.
It’s not exactly fair to try to parse one comment said during a public relations event, but the implications are clear. Garber may not have all the answers, but the vision for the future he presents requires more than 24 teams. The mention of continued expansion in Canada alone requires more than 24, since none of the current expansion candidates are Canadian cities.
What Garber means by “connected” also isn’t clear, but if it’s proximity that raises another round of questions without immediate answers. MLS currently has proximity in three parts of the country. The East Coast corridor from DC to Boston and the Pacific Northwest. We’re dealing with the massive size of the United States and Canada, so proximity is always relative. By Texas standards, Houston and Dallas are close enough to count, even if it’s a four hour drive. You could make a case for California as well with two teams in LA and a potential expansion to Sacramento giving San Jose a rival two hours north.
From an American perspective, that’s proximity. MLS will have true derbies in the two biggest markets in the United States. The footprint finally reaches into the Southeast with Atlanta and Orlando. The map is filling out.
All of this is good news for MLS, with expansion fees working against the losses MLS is publicizing in advance of their collective bargaining agreement negotiations. It’s hard to look at MLS in 2014 as anything but a league on the rise in all aspects.
That said, expansion doesn’t come with guarantees. Every league in this country has expansion choices they’d like to unwind. MLS is certainly part of that group. Yes, almost immediately announcing a new LA club to replace Chivas USA with an expansion fee of just over $100m dollars takes some of the sting out of losing a club. However, MLS did lose a team in 2014. Even accounting for the unique circumstances with Chivas USA, an expansion choice didn’t work.
Back in 1978, the original North American Soccer League hit 24 clubs. That was its height, lasting three seasons before dropping to 21, 14, 12, and then 9 before that league went under. The NASL tried in over 40 markets in 17 seasons. That might be ancient history, with shifting demographics and revenue models.
Then again, there are only two markets MLS is in that wasn’t also home to an NASL team. That’s Salt Lake City and Orlando. Salt Lake City became a major league market when the NBA New Orleans Jazz moved there in 1979. The NBA also opened the Orlando market for top flight professional sports with the 1989 expansion.
What Major League Soccer is currently doing isn’t breaking new ground. They’re following an established expansion model that dates back to the 1970s. We already know what happens when leagues overreach in the USA and Canada. It doesn’t necessarily need 30 teams before expansion doesn’t work. Instead, it’s what happens a few seasons down the road when the newness wears off.
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J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him email@example.com.
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