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.

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