I Hope MLS Expansion Never Ends, Even If Everyone Else Disagrees
As Major League Soccer’s 26th season begins this weekend, a record 27 teams will compete for the MLS Cup. That number will expand to 29 by 2023, with a 30th club in the works. While there are plenty of critics who say expansion is diluting the quality on the pitch and merely enriching current owners’ pockets with expansion fees, I for one want to see MLS expansion continue well beyond 30 teams. If you’re going to go big, go really fucking big. I’m talking 40, 50, 60 teams even.
MLS launched in 1996 with 10 clubs, quickly added two teams then decided to get the hell out of Florida, returning to 10 teams. Since 2005, MLS expansion has exploded, doubling over the next 10 years and likely tripling by 2025.
Recent expansion clubs have been shrouded in controversy, such as Anthony Precourt’s shitshow in Columbus that somehow earned him a reduced-cost expansion in Austin and Sacramento being announced as a next expansion only to see the team disappear before it could get started. There’s understandable frustration and fatigue from so much MLS expansion so quickly, and NASL’s failure is always in the back of any U.S. soccer fan’s mind.
But we shouldn’t let any of this get in the way of MLS’s Manifest Destiny, an apparent desire to put a team in every city in the country.
Aside from Don Garber and Co. filling their pockets with mega-rich expansion fees, there are plenty of positive reasons MLS should keep expanding beyond 30 teams.
More local teams mean more local interest, and if the goal is to spread the gospel of soccer, growing fans at the local level is the best way to start. As much as I watched soccer in the 90s and early 2000s, I personally didn’t pay a ton of attention to MLS until my hometown of Houston got a team in 2006. I remember making a trip north to watch the Dallas Burn play in the Cotton Bowl, but I had no real connection to a local club to keep my interest. (That and we didn’t have ESPN+ to watch every game on TV.) Plus, we’ve seen how expansion teams like Atlanta United and LAFC can make immediate impacts on the league from a viewership perspective.
Additionally, all other major U.S. pro sports leagues have 30 to 32 teams, so MLS should at the very least be able to get to 32. If we’re being honest, that’s selling soccer short. MLB, NFL, NHL and NBA all have limited player pools compared to soccer, a global sport with players from all over the world. Few people play baseball, American football and hockey outside of North America compared to the beautiful game. While basketball is a bit more widespread beyond our borders, it pales in comparison to soccer.
Some look at European leagues and say MLS should have stopped at 18-20 teams, the typical size of a major soccer league around the world. But most European nations have much smaller populations. England and Wales have a population of 59 million, meaning there are about 2.95 million fans per Premier League club, which is about average in Europe. In comparison, the U.S. and Canada have 366 million potential fans; spread that over 30 teams and each club could have 12.2 million supporters. There’s room for growth to as many as 60 teams.
Of course, North America has a multitude of other sports and leagues to compete with for fans, but if MLS’s goal is to be the best league in the world, those other sports don’t matter. If MLS became as popular globally as the Premier League or Champions League, it wouldn’t matter if not all Americans watched MLS, as the rest of the world could make up for the fans who refuse to watch soccer. Merging Liga MX into the league could be a good start.
Now is about the time in any story about U.S. professional soccer where someone complains about the lack of promotion/relegation or the need to be on the FIFA calendar, playing matches from August to May. At the risk of sounding like a pompous pro-America douchebag, the U.S. can do things however the hell it wants. There’s no real reason why MLS can’t succeed without promotion/relegation and mandating just one calendar for soccer leagues in vastly different regions of the world is silly. Pro/rel might be fun, but the U.S. already has plenty of examples of successful sports leagues without it. (That said, who says we can’t have pro/rel and a 60-team first division?)
While I doubt it would happen, I would love to see MLS expand beyond 40-50 clubs. As a big fan of NCAA athletics, I say the more the merrier. Part of the allure of NCAA football is the number and variety of styles from different teams around the country. Arguably the best sporting events in the world not involving a soccer ball are the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, where 64+ teams compete in a single-elimination tournament. Part of what makes it great is the variety of teams, the possibility of huge upsets and the unpredictability of it all. Why not make an entire league out of that premise?
While reasonable-minded people will disagree, I don’t see any reason to curtail MLS expansion. As long as there’s a global market from which to recruit players, there’s no limit to how big MLS could be.