Where does MLS go from here with expansion?

Seven years after Warren Smith, one of the founders of the USL PRO team that became Sacramento Republic FC, said at the club's unveiling that its job was to prove Sacramento could support an MLS team, Sacramento was named MLS's 29th team.

Long ago, Sacramento showed it could support a team, selling out since its first season in USL PRO in 2014.

An expansion effort in Sacramento quickly picked up speed, and a site for a stadium in the city's Railyards area was identified.

Sacramento became a favorite to be designated as an MLS expansion team by 2015, but by 2017 what MLS was demanding in terms of an entrance fee and what other teams, like Atlanta United, were spending right out of the gate pushed Sacramento down the list of expansion possibilities.

Instead of the 24th team, Sacramento became the 29th team when a group led by billionaire Ron Burkle, who co-owns the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins, and Hollywood film producer Matt Alvarez joined lead Sac Republic owner Kevin Nagle.

That wait might turn out be a blessing in disguise as Sacramento has put all the pieces in place to get going on its stadium.

"One of the beauties of the day, among many, is the stadium project already has its planning entitlements," said Sacramento mayor Darrell Steinberg on Tuesday. "There is no holdup. The work begins."

The irony is Sacramento is further along than some of the teams that were selected ahead of it.

Six years after its launch, New York City FC, the 20th team, still has not identified a site for a stadium of its own -- which is proving to be a very thorny issue. It is the top seed in the Eastern Conference, but presents MLS all kinds of hosting challenges if it advances to MLS Cup as the highest remaining seed.

(The Yankees are out of the baseball playoffs, but an Ivy League football game -- Dartmouth vs. Princeton -- is scheduled to be played at Yankee Stadium on Nov. 9, the day before MLS Cup.)

Nashville claimed the 24th spot Sacramento once coveted, but almost two years after its selection and four months before its launch, there is still no target start date to get its Fairgrounds stadium project underway.

More than five years after MLS announced that it would award a franchise in Miami to David Beckham, Inter Miami's plans to redevelop the city-owned Melreese golf course into Miami Freedom Park remain a hot potato in the deeply divided world of Miami's politics.

In April 2016, MLS commissioner Don Garber announced plans to expand from 24 teams to 28, and six months ago, he confirmed plans to expand to 30 teams.

Where does MLS go with expansion now?

On Monday, Garber was adamant that it was time to put the brakes on expansion.

"I think there will be a time when MLS is larger than 30 teams," he said after the announcement. "I don't see that happening any time soon. We are adding a lot of teams. We've had a very systematic approach to expansion. We never wanted to expand too fast. We still think of the dark cloud of the NASL expanding too quickly and not wanting to get ourselves in a situation where we're not thinking about things very strategically."

MLS almost collapsed after the 2001 season, but it never expanded like the original NASL, which added eight new teams in 1974 and six in 1978 but collapsed in 1984.

Soccer has much deeper roots, owners are much more sophisticated in how they view their investment in the sport, and soccer-specific stadiums have given MLS an anchor the NASL never had.

That should not suggest that everything is perfect. Far from it, lots of work needs to be done in major markets like New York, Chicago, Boston, Dallas and Houston, let alone smaller ones, to give MLS pause to push expansion.

One of the drivers of expansion was to expand the league's national footprint for television. That footprint has grown, but MLS's television ratings remain modest.

The 2026 World Cup is around the corner, and MLS must get its ducks in order if it wants to take advantage of the expanded tournament being played in North America.

"All our focus on expansion has been about strategic growth," said Garber. "How do you get to the cities that have a history with the sport or passion for the game and an opportunity to help us grow a national fan base as we get ready for a new media deal? And how you do you get it done in time to capture that energy before the 2026 World Cup?"

Garber said expansion isn't an end in itself.

"We have to get everything on board to be successful," he said. "Expansion doesn't guarantee success. It puts you in a position for success. You still got to execute. You got to get the right owner in the right market, the right stadium in the right location."

Garber acknowledged that MLS is "starting to feel the pressures of a very difficult schedule."

There's the Concacaf Champions League at the beginning of the season and the new League Cup in partnership with Liga MX in the summer. Garber said there is a "re-prioritization" of the Open Cup. (Expansion will inevitably force MLS teams to enter the U.S. Open Cup a round earlier.)

Playing through FIFA windows gets harder as more national team-caliber players are signed. On top of all that, Garber said, "Travel is becoming a challenge."

All these scheduling issues will be compounded if MLS plays with 27 teams in 2021 when it adds Austin and 29 in 2022 when St. Louis and Sacramento enter the league. An odd number of teams forces at least one team to have a bye every weekend.

The solution would be to get MLS's immediate expansion plans out of the way and select the 30th team to begin in 2021.

"It's certainly would be beneficial to our schedule and competitive format if we can bring a [second] team in 2021," Garber said. "We shouldn't and won't in any way expand just to solve that issue. If we were to do something along those lines, it would only be if we had the perfect dynamic and scenario for our 30th club."

Does he not currently see a perfect situation for a 30th team? "I don't want to comment on that," Garber said.

Garber said the complications around expansion are driven more by raised expectations than almost anything else.

"Years ago in professional sports, your newest teams were not in a position to be as competitive," he said. "That's just the nature of the way expansion drafts were. We have to be very mindful of how we think about our competitive structure or competitive rules. What is the future of the Designate Player rule and TAM and some of the other things that are going to be part of our new CBA negotiation? I am still committed to the idea that we want any team in any market regardless of their size or the wealth of their owner to be competitive."

Garber pointed to Minnesota United and Philadelphia Union hosting in Round One of the MLS playoffs.

"I was at the [Union] game yesterday," he said, "and I'd say it was one of the best environments I was in in a really long time. Simply because we have a system to allow both teams to be competitive."

Garber said a lot goes into delivering a competitive product to fans.

"The raised expectations and needs are driven by the momentum the league is riding right now," he said, "the increased expectations and needs of fans. At the same time, our soccer facility environment has grown dramatically. The cost of construction in America is going up, the realization that we need to be in the urban core in almost every scenario regardless of stadium size raises the cost of land. And you're now having teams compete against each other in the environment they are providing their fans in their new facilities and deliver on the rituals and fan experiences that just cost money."

In that regard, Garber likes what has happened in Sacramento.

"I am impressed with a guy like Ron Burkle stepping up and not having a lot of experience in soccer to come in and make the commitments he's made," he said. "These commitments are totaling $400,000,000, $500,000,000. It's a far cry from where we were even just a few years ago."

14 comments about "Where does MLS go from here with expansion?".
  1. Wallace Wade, October 22, 2019 at 8:07 a.m.

    Forget sporting merit and results, all you need is hundreds of millions of dollars. This Country continues to do things ass backwards of the rest of the footballing World but then can't figure out why we don't have any quality on the field.

  2. Jim Martineau replied, October 22, 2019 at 8:57 a.m.

    Unfortunately, the genie can't be put back in the bottle.  Those who've invested that money won't allow promotion and relegation in the current model, and very likely any model.  

  3. Paul Berry replied, October 22, 2019 at 2:20 p.m.

    We've seen league after league fail doing things the European (i.e. English Victorian) way, since the first competitive game on US soil in 1862.

    The US is differerent, the challenges are different and MLS has found a way to help pro soccer survive in a very competitive market.

  4. Peter Bechtold, October 22, 2019 at 10:07 a.m.

    One major distinction with the rest of the world is that professional sports in USA have franchises with owners: 30 in MLB, 30 in NBA, 31 in NHL and 31 out of 32 in NFL; the only exception out of 123 is Green Bay. This leads to another anomaly: Last place teams are not "punished" by relegation but "rewarded" by getting the first overall draft choice.  A classic example of socialism if only folks understood what that term means scientifically.
    We have a system where professional teams start out dead even regardless of the results of the previous season; hence the fight for survival in the bottom half of any league is missing, and competition is directly diminished toward the middle and end of the season once it becomes clear who the front runners are. Come to think of it: a country club system with membership based on the existing group and the only qualification is $$$. Can that be changed ????

  5. R2 Dad replied, October 22, 2019 at 4:04 p.m.

    USSF has the ability to change the rules tomorrow if they chose to. Is that practical at this point? No, but that wasn't the question.

  6. Bob Ashpole, October 22, 2019 at 11:16 a.m.

    There is plenty of room for expansion and a potential savings in travel expenses in moving toward smaller regional divisions.

    Promotion and relegation are economic nonsense given the size of the country.

    The real issues involve television marketing and the distribution of revenues.

    Unfortunately, ticket prices and other factors put regular attendance at matches out of reach for a majority of the population. That is true for other professional sports too.

  7. Kent James, October 22, 2019 at 1:29 p.m.

    LIke it or not, you can't build a league with world class players without money.  As long as teams are profitable, and able to pay their players competitively world wide, expansion makes sense.  Promotion Relegation is clearly better for the fans, but given the financial commitments these owners make (and the economic devastation that relegation would bring, especially in the likely scenario a new team would be relegated), there are good reasons we don't have it.  I like the 20 team leagues that seem common; maybe when the MLS expands enough (near 40 teams), they can then split into 2 divisions of 20 (and upper and lower) and do promotion relegation between them (as a start).  And if the lower leagues (like the USL) are improved enough to be closer to the MLS, they could be included also. 

  8. Bob Ashpole replied, October 22, 2019 at 3:22 p.m.

    Kent, regarding your comment that promotion and relagation is better for the fans, think about this. If there were six teams in the LA area, fans could attend both home and away games. If there were 20 teams in the LA area, diving them into two divisions would allow fans to still attend both home and away games, but also they could follow teams in both divisions. This makes for a good market for attendance for all teams.

    If there are only 2 teams in LA, there will be a lot fewer cross town matches and lower attendances at other matches because it is a lot more difficult for visiting fans to attend.

    Most European countries are relatively small with one large captital city. It concentrates the teams around the one major city.

    Compare Europe to Brazil where the geographic distances are large. They have a regional division approach. 

  9. Paul Berry, October 22, 2019 at 2:23 p.m.

    The draft is becoming irrlelvant to MLS. I can't imagine a team tanking a whole season to sign a Frankie Amaya.

  10. R2 Dad replied, October 22, 2019 at 7:51 p.m.

    The draft was a failed american model that didn't translate for the modern game so it's been dropped--much to the chagrin of the MLS/NCAA talking heads who like to talk about parity, turning pro at 22, and other nonsense that doesn't apply to the sport as it's played around the world.

  11. R2 Dad, October 22, 2019 at 8:01 p.m.

    Those committments would only be $250-$350M if MLS still charged $50M. So now the ownership group is going to have to recoup a return to reflect those bigger investment dollars. What does that mean? Lower investment in the academy, lower quality on pitch, lower quality/poor value for the fan experience when you add up all the higher costs associated with attending the game. San Jose thought all they had to do was open the biggest bar west of the Mississippi and a money spigot would solve all their cashflow issues. With MLS ratcheting up the fees, they've just piled a bigger financial burden on the Sacramento locals. And there is no surer way to develop customers instead of fans than by making the game-day experience ungodly expensive.

  12. Kent James replied, October 23, 2019 at 12:16 a.m.

    What is MLS doing with the money they get from the fees?

  13. R2 Dad replied, October 24, 2019 at 11:27 a.m.

    Saving butterflies and unicorns? It doesn't really matter what they spend it on, it's effectively a huge indirect tax on the community and that's why it's wrong. And totally unnecessary when $50M was the threshold before.

  14. Kent James replied, October 24, 2019 at 10:15 p.m.

    R2, while I would not approve of them. spending it on unicorns, if they were reinvesting it to build up the league (player development, stadium development, or even player salaries for weak teams) it might be defensible.  If they're just charging it because they can, and it's lining somebody's pockets, then it does seem like a problem.  I just don't know where the money goes, and am curious.

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