Major League Soccer dropped a bomb of sorts yesterday afternoon.
In a release on the official league website, it was confirmed that MLS has accepted a bid from current-NASL side Minnesota United FC to become the latest expansion side. While that in itself is great news — United are a far more attractive bid than their cross-city rivals in the Vikings — it wasn’t the biggest news in that release. That was reserved for literally the very last, sentences of the article, and it’s blown the lid off of American soccer social media since.
“Over the course of 2015, we plan to evaluate potential expansion beyond 24 clubs.”
Now that’s some MLS expansion news.
Now if I’m being totally honest, when Don Garber announced back in 2013 that the league was hoping to expand to 24 teams by 2020, very few of us in the media ever thought that twenty-four was a legitimate, hard cap. Even then, there were too many cities interested in having an MLS franchise to limit it to that number. Too, MLS would be leaving far too much money on the table by limiting themselves to just twenty different markets. Twenty-four always felt like far more a milestone than a finish line.
But that begs the question: where is the finish line for MLS when it comes to expansion?
We’re currently sitting at 20 teams in 2015, and we know we’ll have 22 in 2017 when Atlanta and LAFC join the league. With Minnesota likely to be joined by Sacramento in expansion talks, that get’s us to magical number 24. But what does that mean for city’s like San Antonio, St. Louis, and Las Vegas (please, no) all seemingly chomping at the bit? Or even more pertinent, what happens if Beckham’s Miami bid ever gets its act together?
Could we see MLS go to 28, 30, 32 or even 40 clubs? If you asked me that question ten times on ten different days, you’d probably get ten different answers. Why? Because expanding beyond 30 teams brings a whole new set of issues that would need to be dealt with.
Thirty-plus teams is clearly too large for a single table, so that’s a non-starter. Does the league stay in the split conference format that it’s currently in? They could also realign into three divisions again, but let’s hope not for the sake of the playoffs if nothing else. Could they take a page from Major League Baseball’s book and have a hard split into two separate leagues with very limited interleague play? Or maybe they could go with regional mini-leagues like in Brazil? Or there’s also the option of going two divisions and instituting some form of — gasp — promotion and relegation.
Whatever the case, some sort of shift will be necessary. All of the options have drawbacks. All also have positives. And as such, that makes finding the right way forward for expansion critical.
This is going to take a lot more thought and planning than just willynilly distribution of MLS franchise rights to any city and ownership group that wants one. After all, one of the many ills that contributed to the downfall of the old NASL was rampant expansion. Though I’d be shocked if Garber and his minions aren’t keenly aware of that too, as the league has long attempted to steer around as many of those failings as they can.
But 24? Yeah, we’re not stopping there.
So with Minneapolis and the Loons of Minnesota United FC “officially” the next city on deck for an MLS club, it made me think: who’s comes next? There are a load of options on the table, with seemingly a new city throwing their hat into the metaphorical MLS ring every month or so.
NOTE: These are only my predictions. None of what follows is based on anything other than my own speculation.
|1) Minneapolis, Minnesota – Minnesota United FC (NASL)|
Well, we know this one is pretty much done now. And boy am I happy that the Loons managed to beat out a rival bid from the NFL’s Vikings. Not only are United experienced in running a soccer club, but they’re also pledging to build a magnificent, natural grass pitch in downtown Minneapolis. Meanwhile, the Wilfs were solely looking to find another tenant for their indoor, artificial field stadium to help to justify its enormous price tag. Let’s just hope MLS doesn’t go and mess up their gorgeous crest.
|2) Sacramento, California – Sacramento Republic FC (USL)|
While not yet official, I would be absolutely flabbergasted if MLS somehow bypassed giving Sactown the MLS bid their current club were supposedly “built for”. They have the fans — lots of them. They have the right kind of ownership — including backing from the NBA’s Kings. And they also have the backing of the city — yes, that means stadium too. But all that said, MLS’ willingness to consider expanding beyond 24 clubs is actually probably being driven by Sacramento. That twenty-fourth club has more or less already been promised to Miami/Beckham, but MLS knows they need the Republic. Whatever the case, they’re going to get one.
|3) San Antonio, Texas – San Antonio Scorpions (NASL)|
With ownership publicly courting MLS — and MLS admitting as much in the same press release mentioned above. — San Antonio already having an easily expandable soccer specific stadium is a huge plus. They seem to have all of the pieces in place, but the fact that there are already two clubs in Texas seem to be hurting them a bit. And I highly doubt NASL would take too kindly to two of their marquee franchises being poached away either.
|4) Indianapolis, Indiana – Indy Eleven (NASL)|
Take it from me, a former resident: Indianapolis is a sports crazy town. Between the Colts, Pacers and a bevy of big name NCAA schools within a few hours of the city center, you get why MLS would be interested in adding another team in this portion of America’s heartland. And with the success that Indy Eleven have seen in their first year of existence — and a possible stadium just around the corner — it seems just a matter of time before the club look to the brighter lights, or MLS sets their gaze on them.
|5) Miami, Florida – Miami Beckham United|
The only reason Miami is even this far up the list is because MLS wants them to be. The league is well aware of the alluring combination of South Beach and David Beckham when it comes to drawing start names, and as such, they’re giving Golden Balls and his team of investors as much time possible to try to lock down a stadium deal. But every day that passes where that initiative goes unanswered, the farther down this list Miami slips.
|6) St. Louis, Missouri|
Yes, St. Louis FC is a club now in USL. And they look to finally have an ownership group who can get their act together in one of the country’s biggest soccer hotbeds. But until they get a few games under their belts, I’m still not convinced SLFC are going to be the club MLS opts to go with in St. Louie. The oft rumored “big time investors” are supposedly back in the mix, but who knows if those include the group behind the new USL outfit or not.
|7) Charlotte, North Carolina|
Another city with a brand new USL team, Charlotte is a city that seems ideal for professional soccer — high levels of youth participation, a market rife with corporate sponsors, a growing populace with disposable income, and filling a void in MLS’ geographic footprint — but much like St. Louis, Charlotte has struggled to make soccer work. I’d originally thought I’d give the nod to Raleigh — home of the NASL’s Carolina Railhawks and their SSS — but Charlotte’s “big city” appeal would probably be a deciding factor.
|8) Detroit, Michigan – Detroit City FC (NPSL)|
This is one is a bit of a stretch, but hear me out. In a city where there have been loads of economic issues, political upheaval and dimmed hopes, what the fourth tier DCFC have managed to do is pretty impressive. They pack their home stadium week in and week out, they travel well to support their club on the road, and they have a tremendous social media presence that has won them followers across the country. Detroit’s problems are well-known, but they also make for a great opportunity for MLS to seize. Cheap(er) land, an engaged fan base, and the possibility for rivalries with Columbus, Chicago, Toronto and (hypothetical) MLS Indianapolis.
That gets us to 30 clubs… but there are still loads of additional cities that seem like plausible candidates for MLS expansion. A quick “best of the rest”, in my opinion once again:
9) Las Vegas, Nevada – Las Vegas Mobstersr (PDL)
10) Oklahoma City, Oklahoma – Oklahoma City Energy (USL)
11) Austin, Texas – Austin Aztex (USL)
12) Phoenix, Arizona – Arizona United (USL)
13) Chattanooga, Tennessee – Chattanooga FC (NPSL)
14) Rochester, New York – Rochester Rhinos (USL)
15) Ottawa, Ontario – Ottawa Fury (NASL)
16) Buffalo, New York – FC Buffalo (NPSL)