MLS expansion: 27 not out

(Image courtesy of Sacramento Republic FC)

The ongoing story of the expansion of Major League Soccer

Since Major League Soccer’s inaugural season in 1996, the league has undergone mass expansion. In its first season, MLS had 10 teams. By the start of the 2019 season, there were 24, and three further expansion teams will have joined them by 2021. Now, there is stiff competition for the identity of the league’s 28th franchise, as MLS continues to grow, and reach out to the masses across the United States.

In January, Austin FC was announced as the 27th MLS franchise, and will debut in 2021. In the few years prior, MLS acquired its 25th and 26th members – Inter Miami CF and Nashville SC. When the league began in its simple format over two decades ago, such development of America’s premier soccer league would have been almost incomprehensible, even after the success of the World Cup on American shores in 1994. However, now, there is a race among prospective teams from across the nation to become MLS’ next member.

The MLS has a self-imposed limit of 28 teams which means that, according to MLS Commissioner Don Garber, there is only one space left. In March, Garber reduced the list of potential additions to two cities: St. Louis, Missouri and Sacramento, California. This “final” spot will be filled, and the league’s expansion beyond recognition will be complete. Or will it?

As questions have constantly surfaced about the ability of MLS to attract fans and survive as a franchise, the recent expansion has brought into question the limiting of the league to just 28 members. In fact, Sporting Kansas City’s coach Peter Vermes has been very vocal in his predictions that expansion won’t stop at the league’s self-imposed limit, rather that its membership could even reach 40 teams. This popular and widely-held belief has come about because of increased popularity, viewing figures and general appetite for the domestic game in the United States, as more and more teams want a part of it.

While St. Louis are supposedly in pole position to take what is currently the league’s last spot, other major cities have jostled with one another; fluttering their eyelashes with varying bids to become a part of the MLS boom. Phoenix, Detroit, Charlotte, Indianapolis and Las Vegas have all posted bids and made clear their intent to further add to the ongoing expansion of Major League Soccer.

Regarding these cities and their bids, Garber admitted that “those are cities that, should we ever decide to expand beyond 28, would have to be considered as part of a next round.”

Increasingly, the question seems to be when, not if, this happens. Regardless, the growth of the league up to this point has been staggering. With FC Cincinnati joining the league as an expansion franchise for the 2019 season, 24 teams lined up for kick-off in the first year of a new MLS format. The regular season started in March and will conclude with the playoffs in October, followed by the MLS Cup a month later. The new format is simply reflective of the exponential progress of the game and its foremost league in the United States.

So, what exactly can the growth be attributed to? A large part of this was the influx of top stars which began in the mid noughties. David Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard all played in MLS towards the end of their careers as the league established a connection with the English game. The arrival of English legends – particularly David Beckham – brought interest in the league and accessed an entirely new section of fans. What’s more, Beckham’s arrival created a link with a legendary era of European football – since his arrival at LA Galaxy in 2007 significant names such as David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Kaka have followed.

For years, cities and their teams have boasted incredible facilities and a high quality of living to draw this calibre of player to American shores. Despite this, in order for MLS to continue to be taken seriously and develop for the better, it needs to rid itself of the perception that it is a retirement home for those in the twilight years of their careers, which the growing number of high profile players and coaches heading to MLS may be doing. 

In 2019, the connection continues. Having both left the Premier League after stellar careers, Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimović are two of football’s biggest names and now at the forefront of competitive MLS action with the European season entering its final furlong. Both fans and the league itself have embraced Ibrahimović in particular. In fact, in a recent game against the Swede’s LA Galaxy side, Vancouver Whitecaps marketed the game as “Whitecaps vs. Zlatan.” After the game, a Whitecaps player complained that his own fans had been excessively cheering the legend. There is some way to go, but the introduction of simultaneously brilliant characters and players such as Ibrahimović can only add to the interest in, growth and ongoing desire for expansion of MLS.

As part of their expansion efforts, clubs are preparing for and building new stadiums to catch the eye of senior MLS officials such as Garber. For example, Sacramento Republic FC’s plans to build a privately-financed $250 million stadium have been promised. Elsewhere, this past weekend, Minnesota United FC opened their first “soccer-specific” stadium, Allianz Field. In some quarters the stadium has been referred to as a cathedral of soccer,” as fans and owners of those teams engaging in expansion bids will be praying for similar success in years to come.

The vast nature of the landscape in US sport means that there is scope for more fans to turn their attention to football – and not the American kind. MLS needs to continue embracing expansion, developing the game from within and feeding into the fervent sporting culture at the heart of American society. The rise of league membership, state of the art stadia, better players and more coverage outside of America can only add to the development of the game.

Expansion is good for the league, good for players and good for fans. With increasing popularity, competition and quality increases. The game should be allowed to continue to flourish from within and who knows, maybe one day soccer will take over as the nation’s favourite sport.

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