More than one MLS general manager or team executive has expressed concerns that for all the proclamations that MLS wouldn't repeat the mistake of the NASL, in more than a few cases it has done exactly that.
Chivas USA came in amid much fanfare, its owner Jorge Vergara proclaiming its heritage and style would subsume the league's efforts to develop American players and sell its version of the world's game to Americans.
The Mexican owners of the Los Angeles Aztecs believed some of the same tenets, and while the implementation of Chivas USA has brought structure and generated financial streams for the offshoots of Chivas Guadalajara in this country, the MLS entity is floundering at the gate despite building a successful team. It has pulled up its roots, and right now, in its fourth season, is very much the second MLS franchise in Los Angeles, and not much more.
The dysfunctional Red Bulls resemble not so much the glamorous Cosmos as they do perhaps a dozen NASL teams who came into important markets with deep pockets and shallow business and soccer sense. Perhaps the dismissal of executive Marc DeGrandpre and hiring of head coach Juan Carlos Osorio can turn things around on and off the field, but if nothing really changes in the next year, RBNY will be just another league entry with a fabulous new facility and no defining identity.
Osorio is a product of the game's global sprawl, whereby soccer coaches of troubled teams often resort to buying their way out of trouble.
The giddy expansion of the NASL, which expanded from 18 teams to 24 in 1978 to cite just the most extreme example, paid off some bills with the expansion fees but soon cast the league even deeper into debt when most of those new franchises, along with a lot of the existing ones, floundered.
MLS is being wooed by investors in several cities, so its ambitious plans to expand to 18 teams by 2011 aren't being driven by desperation a la NASL. Yet its rapid expansion from 10 teams in 2004 to 16 in 2010 (by adding Chivas USA, Real Salt Lake, Toronto FC, San Jose, Seattle and Philadelphia) contradicts its ambitions to improve the product on the field.
Expanding the slots for foreign players to 112 throughout the league this season (each of the 14 teams is allotted eight slots, which can be traded) is tempered by only a slight increase to the salary cap (said by a source to be $2.18 million per season). The league is thus dependent on domestically produced and/or college players, and despite a handful of collegians emerging as starters in their first or second pro seasons the past few years, dilution of quality is inevitable. This isn't so much a short-term deterrent to the individual teams, since branding and identity are greater factors in the first few years of a team's existence than superb play, but is certainly detrimental to the league's image to potential sponsors and as a TV product.
Getting back to expansion, who will the two be? Adding two more Canadian teams, despite the remarkable success of Toronto FC isn't likely, since the American suitors are many and the league's TV reach north of the border is limited, as ESPN has no presence in Canada. Vancouver has very deep pockets, a high-profile champion in NBA star Steve Nash and a viable waterfront stadium plan. When MLS steadfastly insists it multiple possible ownership groups in Seattle, it's not giving the Saputo family, who run the USL Impact, much of a push. Yet Montreal has a new stadium with a grass field, the Impact just edged out Toronto FC for a place in the CONCACAF Champions League, and the Saputos are ambitious.
Portland could well be Toronto USA, with a stadium (PGE Park) close to downtown, powerful local ownership, diverse population base and a solid soccer legacy. Yet extensive renovation, well into the tens of millions of dollars, will be needed to raise PGE to MLS standards, and not everyone within the MLS offices is convinced it can be done.
St. Louis has decades of soccer heritage and a stadium plan but no viable ownership group, and if PG&E Park doesn't measure up and someone in St. Louis doesn't ante up, a second team in New York is the best bet. The next few months will tilt the arrow in one direction or another.
(Reply below with your expansion choices.)