A Guide to MLS Expansion

kyle beckerman, 2009 mls cup, real salt lake

MLS expansion never seems to stop. With two more clubs set for 2015 and a third in the planning stages, MLS commissioner Don Garber listed several other potential expansion candidates in a media call. Here’s our guide to how a 10-team league expanded to 19 teams and will be up to 21 next season. What does the future hold for MLS?

MLS builds through expansion

There’s no talk like expansion talk, and MLS has its sights set on more teams in more markets. The timeline changes as opportunities emerge. We went from discussing the progress on a second New York City area team to a public announcement. From there, it was Orlando City joining MLS. Then it was David Beckham's option in Miami. Now, it's Atlanta, Minneapolis, or pick from the other cities the MLS commissioner mentioned.

Where are we in the expansion process?

Somewhere in Major League Soccer’s national footprint. From early on, the original ten teams were outposts as MLS eventually filled in their map. With Tampa Bay the only Southeast representative and no teams in major cities like Chicago, the expansion picture was obvious. Fill in the gaps in that map, create national demand for the product, and watch as the league’s TV ratings increased. Over time, more teams mean a better league. At least that's the theory.

Right now, we're waiting to see what happens with a second New York City area team that has yet to announce a stadium. We're also looking at a return to Florida, but in a different market in 2015. Then there's David Beckham's Miami project.

Does expansion always work for MLS?

It was easy going with the first expansion. The Chicago Fire remains one of the league’s great expansion success stories, though for many newer fans 1998 doesn’t resonate. Chicago drew big crowds at Soldier Field, won the MLS and US Open Cups, and stopped the DC dynasty.

Looking back, it might have been too much too soon, but it certainly beat what happened in Miami. The other member of the ’98 expansion class struggled to establish a base playing north of Miami in Fort Lauderdale. In the NASL era, those were separate markets and MLS learned the hard way that the NASL got that right.

On a conference call in December of 2001, MLS commissioner Don Garber announced that Tampa Bay and Miami were no longer in the league. That cut off Florida, meaning no teams in the Southeast. That issue isn't completely put to rest with a return to Florida. There's still a gap between DC and Orlando that now focuses squarely on expansion to Atlanta.

Did contraction work?

The remaining teams benefited from a draft that broke up Tampa and a very good Miami team that finished 1st in the East the previous season.

However, it’s worth remembering that between the end of the 2001 season and the contraction announcement several teams were rumored to be on the cut list. Once MLS made the announcement and limited contraction to Florida, the problem was that footprint along with the idea that any league would cut teams.

MLS wasn’t alone in considering contraction. Major League Baseball came close to removing two of its teams, but that’s a league with a lot more teams than MLS. Back at ten teams, MLS was once again addressing questions that expansion was supposed to answer. When they provided that answer in 2004, it introduced as many problems as solutions.

Real Salt Lake found an audience in a city that only has one other top-level major league team. Chivas USA sharing a stadium with the Los Angeles Galaxy didn’t create the super clasico and divided loyalties like MLS hoped. The bigger success was relocating San Jose in 2006, but moving a championship caliber team into a new market isn’t expansion.

What about Canada?

That starts in 2007 when Toronto joined. There’s no question Toronto has the fans, but they ended up in the same category as the early years in Salt Lake. A new city has a team, but there’s no guarantee that team makes the playoffs. It took three seasons for RSL to get to the postseason and they were champions the following year.

Toronto now stand as the team with the longest streak of never playing a playoff game. They're also the latest MLS team to decide to spend serious money on improving their squad. All evidence points to Toronto as the next MLS super club, following the Galaxy, Red Bulls, and Seattle examples.

With FIFA approval for MLS to act as Canada’s first division, expansion targeted Canada as well as the USA. Vancouver followed in 2011 and Montreal joined in 2012. For not, we're not seeing additional rumors for Canadian expansion. There aren't a whole lot of metropolitan options in Canada. Edmonton and Calgary had teams in the original NASL.

We’re missing some expansion teams, right?

Right. Seattle resets the standard for average MLS attendance starting in 2009. More to the point, they break with the idea that any team joining the league has to have a soccer-specific stadium. They’re the only ones, though. Philadelphia in 2010 and Portland in 2011 are soccer-specific, just like the Canadian clubs.

Where is MLS expanding next?

Over the years, rumors put clubs in places like Trenton, NJ, Winston-Salem, NC, Oklahoma City, and other markets that aren’t in the same category as the major markets without MLS teams.

For MLS, the biggest of those markets is New York. That ignores the team across the river, putting the Red Bulls in the position of needing to redefine their market and try to make things work with direct competition a short distance away.

At the same time, the footprint is still at issue. MLS is well aware, with Orlando City already joining in 2015 and Miami the next expansion market if David Beckham's group puts together a stadium deal. 

On a media call concerning MLS buying troubled club Chivas USA, commissioner Don Garber returned to a familiar topic. Expansion, namely a new list of potential candidates. Atlanta and Minneapolis seemed farthest along on a list that also included San Antonio, San Diego, and Sacramento. 

A quick list of the other major metropolitan areas not already mentioned as expansion targets where MLS only exists on television and where those cities have teams in all of the other four major sports: Detroit and Phoenix. It's worth noticing that list was longer by several cities the first time we put this together.

When Does Expansion End?

For MLS, there might not be the same pressure to keep a league at or below 20 teams as other parts of the world. Part of that is the size of the United States, the examples of the other North American major leagues, and the addition of Canada, reinterpreting FIFA’s preference for 18 or 16-team domestic leagues. Even the Premier League reduced itself from 22 to 20 clubs to satisfy regulations, though they refused to drop down to 18.

If the target is the other North American leagues, all of them have at least 30 teams. It's worth considering that the NFL has 32 teams and none in the second-largest market in the country.

9 Responses to A Guide to MLS Expansion

  1. D. Jarrett says:

    Personally I ll begin to wonder why I support MLS at all if a Southeast US team isn’t established in the next 2 years. Whether in Atlanta, Raleigh, or Orlando. MLS is missing talent and support continuing dishing the South for a seco nd NY team. I’m a big DC fan but I realize I’ll never make it to a game. Atlanta & Raleigh are driving distance. So come on MLS

  2. AgentJ says:

    Two things;
    Vancouver’s stadium is “soccer specific” the same way Seattle’s is. The primary tenant is American Football; they occupied the buildings before MLS, those are the only games where the upper decks are always open and both teams play on artificial turf. However, both buildings were built to house football AND soccer, and both are wonderful places to watch The Beautiful Game.
    Also, on the list of cities that already have four pro teams, you added an extra one; Pittsburgh does not have the NBA.

  3. Adrus says:

    Atlanta, Atlanta, Atlanta!

    link to facebook.com

  4. Jim F says:

    I think MLS should set a goal at 32 teams, like rest of North American Sports, but once we hit at or near that threshold, split into two “leauges” MLS-1 MLS-2, MLS Premiemre, whatever you want to call it, and do REAL promotion and relegation between the two leauges. How you figure who is in which league the first time, That may be hard, I’m thinking some sort of average over the previous 5 years or something.

    • Rumors had Major League Baseball considering that idea while they were also considering contraction in the early 00s.

    • over there says:

      I’ve made that argument before (and of course got shouted down on the league site). It makes a hell of a lot of sense. it would be dramatic, dynamic and fun. I think you can start out with a fixed 2nd division for a few years, to let marginal markets settle and gain traction, and then transition to pro/rel. It would be beautiful.

      • Elizabeth Bales says:

        Never gonna happen. You forget, most North American cities don’t support losers in pro sports. What happens if let’s say the Miami Marlins got demoted to Triple AAA? You think Marlin attendance is bad now, it’s gonna be a hell of a lot uglier when they go up against the Columbus Clippers!

        The only place in North America where it might work is College and you’ll never see it happen there either. I’m sure Ohio State would be really thrilled about being demoted to the MAC if they had a really bad season while Ohio gets promoted to the Big 10+4 after winning the MAC the previous season. What a crushing blow to the egos at Ohio State that would be! Not to mention, the other flaw of promotion/demotion, messing up rivalries. In this case, Michigan-Ohio State.

        That’s why it’s gonna be interesting the day let’s say, Manchester United gets a Chris Cohan (former Golden State Warriors owner with a bad resume) type of ownership that sees Manchester U. have such a major disaster of a season that they get demoted to Triple AAA and thus cannot fight any of their biggest rivals the next season, because their rivals all had good seasons last season.

        MLS would be better off following MLB and the NFL’s National/American league format, but alas MLS has expanded to the point that guarantees that an AFL or AL type of league will never take off. And you will never get let’s say, the San Jose Earthquakes to sacrifice rivalries with let’s say, the Portland Timbers and the Anaheim Raiders err…I mean Chivas for more match ups against the Red Bulls and Unions of the world and vice-versa.

  5. @Dave01 says:

    SAN ANTONIO!!! SAN ANTONIO!!! SAN ANTONIO!!!
    @MLSinSA

  6. Joe says:

    Why not New Orleans? New Orleans has one of the longest soccer histories of any city in North America.