Days of caution in MLS expansion are gone; By Steve Davis

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We know two things about the general policies of expansion in Major League Soccer:

First, caution has always framed the exercise. History’s hard lessons of professional soccer taught everyone that slow-and-steady was the prudent path, and MLS leaders always seemed to get it.

And the second thing we know: those days are over.

How bullish is Major League Soccer on expansion right now? In the last few days, word has emerged that Minneapolis is about to become the league’s next expansion site. Ordinarily that would be a headline topper for days in the MLS news cycle.

Earlier this week, it became more or less official – and yet that wasn’t even the day’s most significant news on MLS expansion. No, the really big fish that fell into the boat is that MLS is pushing the envelope on a league that could soon grow larger than 24 teams.

That’s a significant development, and a marker of how fast things are moving. Just last week, MLS commissioner Don Garber caught everyone off guard by reveling that significant expansion news was 30-45 days away. That seemed to be an accelerated time table – and yet just eight days (8!) after that, the big news did indeed fall.

That’s being bullish. In fact, given the prosaic history of expansion, that’s like waking up in the morning feeling bullish – then hitting the “energy drink” bar and mashing the pedal even harder. But is it really so surprising that, as expansion fees now settle into the $100 million range, all those commas and zeros might start looking great to owners who generally live in the red in MLS? Besides that, as I wrote last week, expanding the league’s national footprint should continue to be a primary target.

It’s all coming together in something that looks like an MLS land rush. As Alexi Lalas Tweeted yesterday: “MLS teams for all!”

The quick history here: Two years ago, around the time Miami and Orlando were earmarked as the 20th and 21st teams, not far from when Atlanta was about to become No. 22, Garber told everyone the league’s target was 24 teams by 2020, after which the league would take a pause and evaluate from there.

Whether league leaders stated it outright, everyone concluded that a 24-team league was the foreseeable future. A larger league seemed years and years away, hardly worth thinking about for the time being. On Monday, Garber confirmed that Minneapolis had pulled way ahead of the field, indicating a high likelihood that the Twin Cities would be home to the league’s milepost 24th team.

But then the other expansion shoe fell, as Garber’s statement Monday concluded with the following, one-sentence humdinger of a paragraph.

“Over the course of 2015, we plan to evaluate potential expansion beyond 24 clubs.”

That was a “Whoa!” moment.

Major League Soccer has 20 teams in competition today. If Atlanta and Los Angeles FC can move forward at pace – bet on Atlanta here, but it’s anything but a slam dunk in LA’s case – then 22 clubs will compete for the title in 2017. Miami can jump into this dogpile as soon David Beckham and his group can find a suitable, feasible downtown stadium site, which is now a requirement according to Garber.

So now it looks like Minneapolis, on the strength of a dedicated, downtown soccer stadium initiative, is close to being locked in as franchise No. 24. (Or, No. 23 if Beckham and Co. cannot get it together, which seems increasingly possible. But that just makes everything more confusing, so let’s just all have a little faith in soccer’s version of James Bond and assume for now that Miami will happen.)

That would leave Sacramento as the “loser” here; the California state capital seemed neck-and-neck with Minneapolis in the race to No. 24. San Antonio and St. Louis were on deck, apparently next in line for consideration. Las Vegas fell out of the running about a month ago.

Now, however, Sacramento, St. Louis and San Antonio – well, plus any other unrepresented market with an interested owner, who can put together a stadium plan lickety split – can rekindle those embers of hope.

One thread that emerged Monday on social media is that Major League Soccer leaders never really intended to cap things at 24, not even for a period of a few years. Rather, hinting that a league of 24 teams would suffice for a while served to goose the race to Nos. 23 and 24, a way to drive up expansion fees and get cities tripping over each other to fatten up their proposals.

It certainly worked in Minnesota, where two separate groups were competing to join MLS; a second Minneapolis group had been backed by the NFL’s Vikings.

It’s a cynical view on things – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Personally, I’d say it’s just plain old “changing your mind” about things, probably based on the above-mentioned expansion fees (ka-ching!) and buoyed by the splashy, highly successful franchise debuts over the last 10 days in Orlando and in the Bronx. But only the league’s board of directors, the select few sitting around the white oak table top in the fancy meeting room, know the truth on this one.

Should MLS expand beyond 24 teams? The short answer is: Why not?

Arguments positing that a talent base is insufficient to support a larger league don’t wash. First, there is literally a world of soccer players out there. If we were filling a larger league only with Americans and Canadians, I might be inclined to agree. But we aren’t. Plus, we’d all like to hope that the developmental academies, still relatively new, will do their part to create pro-ready players sooner rather than later.

Beyond that, there’s really no downside to a larger league, so long as Major League Soccer continues to properly vet potential owners, accepting interest only from very wealthy men and women. The league has learned its lessons about the damaging pitfalls of linking up with less financially stable groups.

Is Minneapolis the right place for No. 24?

It’s certainly not the wrong place. Sacramento would have been great, too. This was really a coin flip; both groups had a lot to offer in local support and energetic drive.

Geographically, Minneapolis made more sense because MLS already has a presence in California; the Galaxy rules sunny SoCal and the San Jose Earthquakes are just a short hop to the West of Sacramento.  So when Bill McGuire and his partners in Minnesota announced plans for a soccer stadium, all the expansion weight fell their way. (The Vikings-backed bid would have shared a stadium with the pro football team, ensuring that one more club MLS played home matches on artificial turf. The only words we need to hear about Major League Soccer and ill-suited artificial turf are this: “Please make it stop.”)

MLS expansion news has become like the old saying about local weather: If you don’t like it, don’t sweat it – it’s probably going to change soon.

Editor’s note: Steve Davis writes a weekly column for World Soccer Talk. He shares his thoughts and opinions on US and MLS soccer topics every Wednesday, as well as news reports throughout the week. You can follow Steve on Twitter at @stevedavis90. Plus, read Steve’s other columns on World Soccer Talk

 

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