MLS, American soccer expanding to new heights

kansascitythe full 90

February 6
The Kansas City Star

The buzzword in American soccer: Expansion. (It just barely out-buzzed “allocation.”)

It’s just about everywhere and occurring at almost every level. Major League Soccer has grown in leaps in bounds over the last seven years (nearly doubling its total franchises). Both the NASL and USL Pro have expanded at a rapid rate as well. Even the National Women’s Soccer League — which started just last year — has already added an expansion club.

By 2015, 43 cities in North America (U.S. and Canada only) will have a soccer team spread across the four major leagues.

We aren’t moving into uncharted territory really. Back in 1995, the year before Major League Soccer began, there were over 60 clubs between the A-League and the United States Interregional Soccer League. Those teams were a mixture of professional, semi-professional and amateur. Neither league was considered a “top” division and the fluctuation of clubs was often fairly great.*

*There were some great names, though: Shasta Scorchers, Columbus Xoggz and Cape Cod Crusaders!

But we are moving into an era of increased visibility and stability. The last MLS clubs to fold were the Miami Fusion and the Tampa Bay Mutiny after the 2001 season. The last club to relocate was the San Jose Earthquakes, which became the Houston Dynamo in 2006. (San Jose would rejoin the league two years later under new ownership.)*

*The lower tiers have experienced more hiccups, but that’s not exactly odd given that neither division has a TV deal or a big single-entity structure backing them a la MLS.

It’s becoming increasingly harder to believe that a decade ago Major League Soccer had just 10 teams, a handful of owners and a group of young American players with their sights set on bolting for Europe as soon as an opportunity presented itself.

The league will open its 19th season on March 8 with 19 teams, a diverse group of deep-pocketed owners and a group of talented American players with their sights set on playing in North America with a World Cup on the horizon. Oh, and a group of well-financed and deep-pocketed owners clamoring to join the party.

Last year, Orlando City and New York City FC (backed by Manchester City and the New York Yankees) became the 20th and 21st teams to join the league. Both franchises will come on board in 2015.

On Wednesday, without a team name or a stadium plan*, Major League Soccer announced that a David Beckham-fronted ownership group will bring a franchise to Miami. Eventually. Details have emerged that the ownership group, which includes billionaire Marcelo Claure and television producer Simon Fuller, have targeted 2017 to join the league.

*The highlight of the event — besides proving that an underwear modelis still the biggest draw in American soccer — was talk of the stadium. Beckham told the assembled media that the group “will fund the stadium ourselves.” That’s a good step for a city that’s had its problems with public-funded stadiums. It’s also interesting that the Beckham group is focusing on Miami, one of the few markets that didn’t survive the first years of MLS.

The unnamed Miami franchise will be the league’s 22nd team. Meaning Don Garber’s ambitious plan to have 24 teams by 2020 is well on track. Only two spots remain with six years to work out the details. (The race for those final two spots should be an interesting one. Atlanta, Minneapolis, St. Louis, San Antonio, Charlotte and Sacramento are all potential destinations as of right now.)

The idea of 24 teams in this league is still kind of bananas. After all, a decade ago Major League Soccer was a fledging American professional sports league. The league’s ten teams had an average stadium attendance of 15,559. (The 19 teams in 2013 averaged 18,608.)

Of course, it makes sense that Beckham* is involved in the league’s expansion craze. After all, he played a pretty big role in getting us here.

*It’s not a surprise that Beckham is an owner. Part of his initial deal when he signed with MLS was the right to purchase an expansion team at a discount fee of $25 million.

When the league (and the Los Angeles Galaxy) broke the bank (and a few rules) to acquire him, it helped usher in our current era. There were a few bumps, of course. But the impact of a major star in the league helped drive attendance and the stature of the league.*

*Whether you want to give Beckham credit or not, the players who arrived in his wake (either because of him or the rule that brought him here) have radically redefined the profile — and quality — league: Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane, Marco Di Vaio, Clint Dempsey and, now, Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley.

While the league still has a few serious issues on the horizon (a collective bargaining agreement, a new television deal to iron out, salary caps, roster sizes, etc.), the league is as popular now as it has ever been*. Billionaires want in. Stadiums (in most markets) are packed. Fan-bases are growing. Recognition (domestically and internationally) is moving forward not backward. And more than a handful of top-quality players are coming in (and the league/teams are finding the money to pay for them).

*Even if that hasn’t translated to television ratings or complete cross over into the major sports landscape. Those things are still long-range goals. Both are going to be very difficult to attain.

Growth isn’t restricted to just MLS. Pretty much every soccer league in America is growing.

In the last year, the North American Soccer League (the second division), added three teams: New York Cosmos, Indy Eleven and Ottawa Fury. The league starts the 2014 season with 10 teams.

Next season, it will add three more franchises: Virginia Cavalry FC and as-of-yet unnamed franchises in Oklahoma City and Jacksonville.

The USL Pro has been active too. Last season, the league added a franchise (Phoenix FC Wolves) to get to 11 teams. In 2014, the league will add three teams: Oklahoma City Energy FC (a Sporting KC affiliate club), Sacramento FC and the newly-formed LA Galaxy II.

Next year, Orlando City (also a Sporting KC affiliate) will leave to join MLS, but the USL Pro will add clubs in Colorado Springs and Tulsa. The partnership between MLS and USL-Pro (and the ease with which many clubs have moved from second/third to first tier without promotion/relegation, just money) will likely facilitate more growth.

By the end of next season, there could be 49 teams between the top three divisions in American soccer with more on the horizon.

While all three have found their footing on the rocky spots landscape, how much more is there left to climb?

Where’s the plateau? 50 teams? 60? There are a few untapped markets still: Detroit, San Diego, Milwaukee, Memphis/Nashville, Louisville and Las Vegas to name a few. How far can we go?

We might not know the answer for a while, but its kind of dizzying to think that soccer has climbed this far in the last decade. And the climb is going to continue.

Not even the most optimistic, bright-eyed, idealist in 2004 could’ve imagined we’d climb to this height. They wouldn’t have even thought it conceivable.