By J Hutcherson (Sep 16, 2016) US Soccer Players – Give Don Garber credit for embracing a talking point. Since MLS decided to draw the expansion line at 28 teams, the MLS commissioner has stayed on message. In Frisco for the US Open Cup final earlier this week, Garber once again repeated the league’s new stance that 28 is the perfect number for a North American topflight league. Disagree at your peril, or something.
Why 28 is the magic number is a fair enough question. MLS is also on record that further Canadian expansion is off the table. Since two of the recent expansion clubs have gone to metro areas that already have an MLS team, doubling down might also still be on the table. Otherwise, the footprint that troubled MLS for so long is already wide enough to cover most of the USA.
Canada is a different story. Our northern neighbors are rightly upset to be sitting out another Hex. They’d certainly appreciate an MLS model that addressed their specific concerns. The current one doesn’t, or at least not enough. Where Canadian players fall on Canadian rosters is Canada’s big picture issue. Big enough that the president of the Canadian Soccer Association and CONCACAF Victor Montagliani has stepped into that particular mess. The CSA might be throwing empty weight around propping up its new league as an alternative to MLS. Then again, this might be the opening salvo in yet another soccer war.
MLS still hasn’t completely addressed the quality control problem there or here. Players have to come from somewhere to fill the league’s rosters. The commitment to player development is real, but it’s also a potential profit source. That profit comes from selling players to foreign clubs, something that shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody. There’s no established developmental model for producing the kind of players that fill out MLS rosters. Well, unless you count college soccer that’s undergoing its own cultural revolution.
It seems like MLS has nothing but transitional moments. None of this is likely to cause them undue stress. Garber mentioned the original NASL and the specter of over-expansion, but even that is a scary story from another era. It wouldn’t be the same type of over-expansion should MLS reach too far too soon. They have better financial safeguards in place in a reality where sports is more business than anything else. MLS has lasted long enough to see off the previous attempt at major league North American soccer.
So where are now? Is the professional soccer market in the United States demanding more to the point that MLS can’t meet demand? Is it a case of smart choices now, rather than looking for the next injection of cash? Is that 28 a management statement on what the league thinks will work best?
These are all open questions, of course. MLS could end up in a situation where they’ve misjudged the market, but they wouldn’t be the only ones. Even though the league is currently doing the most expanding, they’re not doing it haphazardly or with desperation.
Whether or not this is the best future for American pro soccer, it’s the obvious one. There’s no point in arguing alternative league structures or attempting to redesign what MLS has already put in place. Short of an interesting meeting with the league’s board of governors, that’s not the business they’re in.
How this will look if the league stops at 28 teams will likely seem familiar. The league’s growing pains have settled to the point where expansion is just part of things. New teams come into a league that doesn’t stress dynasties and has little time for lengthy rebuilds. It doesn’t take long for a new team to turn into a playoff team. That’s part of the sell, with expansion investor/operators knowing they won’t have to wait as long for the games that count.
The next era for MLS should be consolidation. That’s not just about addressing overall quality. It’s also about figuring out where the league is working and where it isn’t. The league’s resistance to moving clubs is laudable, but it’s not realistic. It took a total revamp and a rebranding to make soccer work in Kansas City. That’s a success story, but it’s not a model. Or at least it’s not a predictable one.
It’s a fair argument that the league should’ve already figured this out. That expansion is covering over the flaws in MLS evident in the struggling franchises, the collapse of Chivas USA, and the stadium issues in several markets. It can’t just be about what comes next. The league might be able to wait until their 28th team kicks a ball with points on the line, but it doesn’t mean that they should.
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.
More from J Hutcherson: