Friday’s soccer news starts with MLS announcing that they plan to expand the league to 30 teams. As these things go, expecting any league to cap their total number of teams when investor/operators are willing to pay their $200m expansion fee might be misguided. The pursuit of expansion fees may have been the cause of death for the original North American Soccer League, but from the MLS perspective that’s an antiquated story from a different era. Cities like St Louis and Sacramento are pressing for expansion and MLS seems set to give them and others the opportunity.
“Professional soccer at all levels is thriving in the United States and Canada and we believe there are many markets that could support a successful MLS club,” MLS commissioner Don Garber sais in a press statement. “Expansion during the last 15 years has been enormously successful and a key driver behind the league’s continued rise, and we are pleased that some of the top business and community leaders representing great markets in North America are aggressively pursuing MLS expansion clubs.”
Considering the pace of MLS expansion, it’s almost a wasted effort to reply to that with “until it isn’t.” That’s the long-term problem hanging over expansion efforts across US sports. The teams that came into leagues in the 90s and 2000s are collectively a mixed bag. There were reasons expansion slowed down across those league and it wasn’t because of owners unwilling to meet an expansion fee. That expansion fee looms over the MLS announcement. It’s hard to avoid when the league put it int he subhead and the first paragraph. What it means for quality of play, what’s gone wrong in some existing markets, the lackluster TV ratings, and fully embracing free agency and competition among teams for players apparently slide in somewhere underneath that.
There’s no point in treating MLS like it’s still the struggling league from the early 2000s. At the same time, there’s also no point in acting like MLS has fully arrived in the North American pro sports landscape. Pro soccer in this country doesn’t necessarily mean MLS. More teams may help that, but it’s the same footprint problem the league has tried to address for two decades. They’ve done this while dragging along a single-entity and investor/operator model that does very little for anybody not invested in MLS as a business.
Meanwhile, MLS also announced that they want training compensation and solidarity payments under FIFA rules. This hot button topic in American soccer is already in front of FIFA with American youth clubs wanting payments. US Soccer has said no across the board, raising an interesting situation for the governing body. It’s hard to imagine MLS did this without consulting US Soccer, but stranger things happen in the world of international soccer politics and business.
This is a business decision that limits the ability of American players to opt out of the MLS system. MLS is justifying this based on their investment in academies, but their restrictive system doesn’t make this a like-for-like comparison. MLS unilaterally implementing a FIFA mandate in a press release doesn’t bring an end to the training compensation and solidarity issue either. It’s a step they’ve chosen to take, but other entities in the sport and beyond also get a say.
One of those is the MLS Players Association, who released a statement. “Today’s announcement by MLS regarding training compensation and solidarity payments is a step backward for the development of soccer in the United States and Canada. It is an effort by the league to inhibit player choice, does nothing to address the development of youth soccer, and makes plain MLS’ selective application of international rules to suit its own agenda.”
The Athletic’s Miki Turner and Paul Tenorio work through MLS and training compensation. American Soccer Now’s Brian Sciaretta also looks at the MLS announcements. SI.com’s Brian Straus on the MLS expansion announcement. Goal’s Ives Galarcep lists the likely MLS expansion cities. Soccer America’s Paul Kennedy on the obvious expansion choices.
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