Another day, another MLS expansion story in the news. This week, it’s Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper insisting that the league belongs in Charlotte. This comes hot on the heels of Sacramento billionaire Ron Burkle joining that city’s expansion bid last week, which itself came not long after a December meeting in which MLS auditioned another handful of potential cities. Eventually, though, this love for expansion will end, and the league is going to have to figure out other ways to grow.
In the mid-2000s, the league could hardly give away franchises. It folded a couple of Florida teams, then turned around and concocted a woefully misbegotten scheme to start an American outpost of Mexican giant Chivas in Los Angeles. At the time two men, Phil Anschutz and Lamar Hunt, owned nine of the league’s 10 teams. That desperation for someone, anyone to own an American soccer team isn’t some Federal League-like historical relic. This era has informed the expansion mania that has possessed MLS ever since. Spread and survive, or die; those were the only choices.
The league has spread. FC Cincinnati is team number 24, starting this year. Nashville and Miami will start up next season, Austin the season after that. MLS committed to 28 teams years ago, in part to drum up support for expansion bids. But already commissioner Don Garber has started suggesting that the league could move beyond 28. That’s giving hope to Sacramento. And Charlotte, Detroit, St. Louis, San Antonio, San Diego and probably six more cities that would be aggrieved to be left off that already-too-long list.
No doubt the league could find 32 or 36 or 40 sites for teams in the United States and Canada. Garber has said that he believes the league “could be successful in any market in America,” and that today’s expansions are less about whether the city is a good fit, and more about whether the bid has a deep-pocketed owner and a solid plan to build a stadium.
At some point, though, there will be too many teams for a single league. This season, Minnesota United will play each of the other 11 teams in the Western Conference twice, and the 12 teams in the Eastern Conference once. Next year, that balance will be gone, with two new teams joining the league. Either the league will stuff more games into the schedule and unbalance the conference slate, or we’ll start seeing teams go multiple years between playing teams from the other conference. Already, the league is verging on becoming too unwieldy.
MLS will soon be faced with a choice. It can split itself into multiple leagues, somehow, whether geographically or based on position in the standings (i.e. the long-discussed option of promotion and relegation). Or it can stop expanding and find other ways to grow interest in the league. The latter will mean competing against other North American pro leagues, as well as other soccer leagues around the world, for fans’ scarce attention.
Expansion has worked for MLS. It learned a long time ago that the easiest way to lead people to soccer was to bring them a local team. The hard part, though, is figuring out the step that comes next.
Writer Jon Marthaler gives you a recap of recent events and previews the week ahead. • firstname.lastname@example.org