MLS Expansion: Is It Time to Rethink It?


To be completely honest, I am not an expert about Major League Soccer. To be even more honest, this is the first season I have watched more than just a handful of games.

I have been an avid supporter of European soccer for years, but have just recently jumped on this thing called Major League Soccer.  I recently moved to Seattle and well, the rest is history.

Compared to other leagues around the world, MLS is quite young.  Next season MLS will celebrate its 20th anniversary.  The English Premier League has only been in existence for 23 seasons, but the Football League First Division, England’s former top flight, had been around since 1888.  So yes, MLS is relatively young.

In recent weeks there has been a lot of talk about the upcoming hiatus and rebrand of Chivas USA as well as the possible sell of the New York Red Bulls.  At the same time several cities have been campaigning to be one of the final three MLS franchises.

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As we currently stand, there are 19 MLS clubs.  Two will be added next season (New York City FC and Orlando City), but Chivas USA will cease to exist for two years.  This puts the league at 20. A new team in Atlanta has already been announced and with the addition of the second team in Los Angeles, MLS will be back to 22 clubs in 2017.

This leaves the league with two open positions.  Several cities have thrown their hats into the ring including Miami, Minneapolis, San Antonio, Sacramento, St. Louis, and Las Vegas.  It appears that Miami is a clear front-runner to land a team. However, Beckham’s dream of bringing a team to Miami has seemed to hit a roadblock .  So who deserves to be an awarded a MLS expansion team?

Let me take a look at this debate from a different angle.  Is MLS getting in over their heads?  Two previous MLS teams, Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny have both gone defunct.  A third team will be joining them next season.  So if my math is correct, of the 21 total teams to have played a match in MLS history, three of them will cease to exist.  That means 14% of the league’s teams will have discontinued operations.  May seem small, but if you told me I had a 14% chance of contracting a deadly virus, well, I would not be very thrilled with those odds.

There are a lot of contributing factors as to why this may have happened, but I submit one argument: geography.  If you take a look at a map of the United States and where MLS teams are located, there are enormous gaps where MLS does not have a presence.  So does that mean that no soccer fans live in those areas?

I grew up in Arizona.  There is an enormous soccer fan base in the southwest, but there is no MLS team.  Therefore, until I moved to a city and region with an MLS club, I had no reason to watch or support the league.  I understand that not every city can have an MLS team and I also understand that the United States, in terms of land mass, is much, much bigger than England, Spain, Germany, and other soccer nations.

So what is to be done?

My solution, slow down on MLS expansion and focus on the North American Soccer League and United Soccer League.  There are currently 10 teams in the NASL with three planned for expansion and 14 teams in the USL Pro with six teams soon to join.  The leagues are still young but the teams in the NASL averages over 5,000 fans in attendance per match.

This may seem small, but it is right on par with the average attendance of Triple-A minor league baseball.  One of the USL Pro teams, the Sacramento Republic averages over 11thousand fans at each home match.  Clearly there are fans all around the country.  And thanks to the recent call up of Miguel Ibarra from the Minnesota United of the NASL to the US 21-man roster, attention is being brought to these lower level teams.

What if the NASL and USL were to grow into two 20 team leagues and partner up with the MLS?  What if these lower division teams had the chance of promotion into the MLS?  Would these fan bases now have a reason to cheer for their team and pay more attention to the MLS?  In America, we love an underdog.  Here is a chance for smaller market teams to compete on the big stage with the best teams our country has to offer.

I worry that Major League is trying to grow their product too quickly and that there is a real chance for failure of future teams if they are not careful.  What the MLS needs to do instead is strengthen the current clubs before they continue to expand.  Once they have a solid core of teams, they can begin to grow the lower divisions and let teams earn their way into the MLS through promotion instead of expansion.

Like I said above, maybe I simply don’t know enough about the league.  But to use a camping analogy, if I set up a tent and the wind keeps blowing it over, maybe the best idea would be to make sure the stakes are firm and strong instead of setting up another tent.

We should not forget that there were soccer leagues in the US before Major League Soccer and those leagues all failed.  Seven of the current 19 MLS teams have experienced a decline in attendance this season, and that’s at the back of a very successful World Cup.  In total, MLS attendance has only grown this season by 1.8%.  MLS needs to be careful that they do not spread themselves too thin and risk the chance that another team ceases operations.

Maybe I am bias to the European structure.  But at the end of the day, the fact is that those leagues in Europe have existed for much longer than MLS and just like our grandparents have always told us, we would be wise to learn from our elders.