Major League Soccer (MLS) is being forced to expand larger and more quickly than it originally intended. As recent as 2014, MLS Commissioner Don Garber stated that the league would stick to 24 teams “for some time.” How is that declaration panning out? As of the 2019 season, MLS has reached the 24-team mark, and it is scheduled to blitz its way to 26 teams by the year 2020. To top things even further, MLS also announced in 2019 that it eventually plans to expand to 30 teams. The “end of MLS expansion” goalposts are constantly shifting and it is clear that there is no clear roadmap or limit. The location and timing of expansion is purely in reaction to rising competition from non-MLS entities in the USA soccer ecosystem.
Some see the MLS expansion rush as nothing more a money play. MLS is now commonly seen as a ponzi scheme that relies on new “investor” teams to buy in so that the existing apparatus can stay afloat and turn a profit. While money is certainly a factor, It appears that there is a chief underlying motive behind this expansion rush: MLS is desperate to protect and maintain its monopoly control over the entire American soccer ecosystem.
The U.S. sport owners that moonlight as shareholders of MLS are not necessarily focused on raking in profits from their MLS side hustle. Their MLS teams are just tiny portions of their overall portfolios of companies and U.S. sports franchises. Though the kingpins of MLS see the soccer itself as an afterthought, it is still advantageous for them to keep soccer limited within their control so that it does not threaten the popularity and profitability of their U.S. sport empire. MLS appears to be designed to keep soccer contained in the vacant, niche space below big U.S. sports like NFL or NBA. MLS does not want upstart soccer leagues and clubs to create a real club soccer competition with promotion/relegation that could steal the attention and dollars of U.S. consumers.
This reactionary MLS expansion craze is primarily driven by emerging competition from lower division USA soccer clubs and leagues. MLS deliberately leverages its monopoly over the USA soccer division 1 sanction to absorb (see Minnesota United FC and FC Cincinnati) or extinguish (see Atlanta United) the latest external threats from the lower divisions. Of course, the growth of lower division soccer clubs points all eyes to the elephant in the room: Why no promotion/relegation in USA soccer? The realization of USA soccer’s absurd closed-system policy is fueling an ever-increasing buzz for the promotion/relegation (#ProRelforUSA) movement, which in turn is adding to the overall heat MLS is feeling from the lower divisions.
The accessibility of global soccer in the USA market, thanks to the internet and TV, is bringing about an unprecedented awakening in the American soccer fan appetite. These fans also want to see the game in person and get behind their own local club like the rest of the world. The past decade alone has seen a remarkable amount of shake up and growth in the USA soccer landscape. New lower division U.S. clubs are now being founded by the dozens each year. There is quite a bit of instability still, but despite the toxic closed system that stifles the upward mobility of clubs, there is a large net positive growth quotient with each passing year. The hopeful scent of an open-system future is alive and well in the USA soccer ecosystem.
How will the MLS expansion story end?
Will MLS decide to follow U.S. sport precedent and set a stone-cold-lock limit for expansion at around 32 teams? If so, how will the 9,000+ US soccer clubs permanently left out of division 1 react? I estimate that many will quite upset that the Noah’s ark door of USA soccer division 1 expansion has been closed forever – particularly the larger clubs in larger cities. Will MLS try to expand to 50 to 100 teams in order to create an umbrella of MLS divisions that runs promotes and relegates within itself? If so, will its shareholders be upset over the prospect that some of them might face relegation to the “MLS basement” tiers?
In the meantime, we can be sure that MLS will continue to chase after the most trendy lower division clubs and fan markets. As of 2019, a division 2 (USL) club in New Mexico, USA is drawing 15,000+ fans per game. Even if a new USA soccer club popped up in Timbuktu-Nowhere, USA and drew 15,000+ fans, you can be sure that MLS would add it to their expansion list. The MLS expansion saga may wind up with the entire MLS monopoly over American soccer imploding as the calls for a fully open system crash against it. Hitting the reset button and reserving divisional sanctions for open leagues only may just be the best thing that can happen to USA soccer. As always, if this current U.S. Soccer Federation can’t represent all constituents in American soccer, then we will need a new USA soccer governing body that will.
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