MLS Expansion: A Proposal for a 48 Team League

Sep 6, 2016; Jacksonville, FL, USA; United States fans cheer during the first half in a game against Trinidad & Tobago at EverBank Field. United States won 4-0. Mandatory Credit: Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 6, 2016; Jacksonville, FL, USA; United States fans cheer during the first half in a game against Trinidad & Tobago at EverBank Field. United States won 4-0. Mandatory Credit: Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports /

What if Major League Soccer accepted all twelve applications and then some more to create the largest league in American professional sports.  What would a 48 Team MLS look like and could fans of promotion and relegation have cause for hope under this (far-fetched) idea?

There are currently twelve applicants for four MLS Expansion spots.  It would be great if we could let in as many viable teams in as possible, as there are certainly more than four from that group of twelve that have strong fan bases to support MLS teams.  Looking at the number of North American markets that could regularly fill a 20,000 soccer-specific seat stadium with the demographics MLS prefers, it is a lot more than twelve.

With expansion fees approaching $200 million, the business people running MLS will not accept a completely open system with promotion and relegation throughout the U.S. soccer pyramid. Used to an American-style league with playoffs, investors in MLS clubs would have reasonable grounds to be upset — even though promotion / relegation would be preferential for most fans — if the league suddenly followed the structure of the majority of soccer leagues in the rest of the world.   If fans cannot have a completely open system, what about a hybrid model where MLS maintains the top of the soccer pyramid with promotion and relegation between two ‘leagues’ of 24 teams where more markets have an opportunity to watch soccer at the highest level in the country.

From a financial perspective, it would be more lucrative for current investors to accept 24 teams paying $50 million (total $1.2 billion) each to enter a MLS2 than the maximum 4 teams that will be selected to pay $200 million (total $800 million) to have MLS teams in a 28 team league in 2020.

A hypothetical MLS1 will be two conferences of 12 for 24 teams:

MLS1 Western Conference
Vancouver WhitecapsColorado Rapids
Seattle SoundersFC Dallas
Portland TimbersHouston Dynamo
San Jose EarthquakesReal Salt Lake
LA GalaxySporting KC
LA FCMinnesota United
MLS1 Eastern Conference
Toronto FCDC United
Montreal ImpactColumbus Crew
NY Red BullChicago Fire
NYCFCOrlando City
New England RevolutionMiami Beckhams
Philadelphia UnionAtlanta United

Dropping down to MLS2 would be the four teams (in bold) with the lowest point totals, with two per conference making the most sense.  A hypothetical MLS2 below consists of markets where current or proposed teams exist and pro soccer is expected to succeed.  Four clubs (in bold) would hypothetically move up to MLS1 for the next season.

MLS2 Western Conference
Mission San Diego FCSan Antonio Scorpions
SF DeltasAustin Aztex
Reno 1886Albuquerque
Las VegasCalgary
Sacramento RepublicEdmonton
Phoenix RisingArchers FC (St. Louis)
MLS2 Eastern Conference
Nashville SCJacksonville Armada
Virginia BeachTampa Bay Rowdies
PittsburghPuerto Rico Islanders
Indy ElevenOttawa Fury
DetroitNorth Carolina FC (Raleigh)
FC CincinattiCharlotte

Holes in this idea?  Yes, lots.  There are plenty of questions already wondering where the talent will come from to sustain MLS quality expansion clubs beyond Atlanta United and Minnesota United. Would American markets used to sports where the best talent in the world plays in their arenas accept going to games in a second division?  What impact would a relegation race have on the league’s television deals?  What kind of refereeing could we expect if a major market team like Red Bull NY or LAFC was in a do-or-die game to stay in MLS1?  Would the league implode as many other soccer leagues in North America have before it?  As far as crazy ideas go, it is not flawless.

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However, instead of following the typical formula for professional leagues in American sport, MLS could chart a completely different course and bring all sorts of new fans to soccer and new markets to the top of the pyramid.  It would be radical but if you consider the number of teams that succeed throughout the world in markets much smaller than the 48th largest in the above proposal (last year’s Premier League champion Leicester represents a city of just over 300,000 and Reno’s population is about 250,000), it is not unrealistic in theory and something MLS should consider to establish soccer throughout North America.