Expansion! Major League Soccer is expanding!
This coming season, two new teams will enter into the MLS fray: Inter Miami FC and Nashville SC. In 2021, Austin FC and Charlotte come aboard and then Sacramento and St. Louis in 2022. This will bring the total to 30 clubs, making MLS one of the largest soccer leagues in the world. This will also bring about a significant amount of conversation as to what MLS will look like in the future.
The entry fee for the Charlotte franchise was an eye-popping and record-setting $325 million. With this, Don Garber also added another comment in an interview with ESPN:
This is the right time for our league. It’s the right time for the sport of soccer in America and it really is the right time for the ownership group. This is likely the last expansion team in Major League Soccer.
Time will tell whether this is true. Expansion teams in MLS (especially with that entry fee number) garner offseason headlines and keep MLS as a topic of conversation in the middle of football and basketball season.
Yet, what are the possibilities for such a large number of clubs. What could the future hold for 30 MLS clubs? Here are some possibilities, with the corresponding pros and cons of each possibility.
Option 1: Keep the structure as is.
No significant changes, which given the other changes taken place means fewer moving parts to focus on other more pressing matters.
Fewer teams to play: With a 34-game schedule and 30 teams, the current model of each club playing the majority of their conference foes twice will obviously be out of the question. For fans, that was always a plus is to know you’ll see the majority of your conference competitors come to town.
Option 2: The MLB/USL Model: Divide into MLS East and MLS West.
As the title indicates, why not employ what Major League Baseball (sans interleague play) and USL’s structure? Divide MLS into an East/West league.
Cut down on travel time: This would cut down on travel time among the players, keeping them fresher and allowing those who come from European countries to adjust better. If you go to the website http://thetruesize.com, you will see that the United Kingdom covers the same landmass as that of Colorado and New Mexico.
Stoking the fire of an East/West rivalry: This already exists, so why not fan the flame?
With fifteen clubs per conference (?) and a 34-game schedule, you would play one team more than twice. The solution would be to expand to 32 teams, giving each conference 16 teams per side, providing fairness that each team would play the same teams both home and away. I list this as a con due to Mr. Garber’s previous comment about not expanding.
Option 3: Single Entity Pro-Rel (i.e., MLS 1 and MLS 2)
MLS, as we all know, is a single-entity league where each team is “owned” by the league. With 2022 bringing on (an unwieldy) 30 clubs), a possibility exists for promotion and relegation within this single entity. So, rather than having an east/west dichotomy, have pro/rel where they stay within the parameters of MLS but the pluses of the format used by most other leagues in the world.
More interest from the fans. One of the more interesting aspects from watching other leagues with promotion and relegation is seeing not only who stands at the top of the league (which are usually the same teams each year), but who will be relegated to and promoted from the lower the division.
More incentive from the front office. If the relegation threat exists, the front office and ownership should (that’s the operative word, isn’t it?) do all they can to “stay up.” And those
Less interest from the owners wanting to buy into MLS. Clearly, Charlotte did not pay $325 million with the threat of relegation—which, barring the inclusion of some superstar players—is likely their fate. Same with FC Cincinnati who struggled mightily their first year. Atlanta United and LAFC never had that problem in their first years, so it doesn’t always happen (and makes the point of the second ‘pro’ mentioned above). But will owners come aboard the MLS train should this format exist? Not likely!
What options do you see? Is there a need to change anything? East/West? Pro/Rel within MLS?