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MLS expansion: Has the game changed?

Philadelphia was number sixteen. Vancouver and Portland seventeen and eighteen. Montreal was announced this season as MLS’s nineteenth team and Commissioner Don Garber has already stated his desire to have number twenty in New York. I’m talking about MLS expansion and if you’re a fan of the league you’ve probably heard about some of the goings on that are changing the way the game is played.

MLS began its current expansionary phase in 2005 with Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA. Toronto followed in 2007, MLS re-expanded to San Jose in 2008, and Seattle entered the league in 2009. Philadelphia started play this season and MLS has expansion bids lined up through the 2012 season leading some to make comparisons to the over-expansion that played a part in the downfall of the NASL. This is not the first expansion era in MLS as the Chicago Fire and now-defunct Miami Fusion entered the league in 1998, but this protracted expansion effort certainly differs from that effort while the league was still in its honeymoon phase. In this current expansion era, new teams have tended to struggle out of the gate as they search for depth and consistency on their pieced together rosters. Seattle was the first expansion team to reach the play-offs in its inaugural season since the Chicago Fire did it in 1998, and though there are many explanations and reasons for Seattle’s success, one can argue that the team had advantages over other previous expansion teams in building its roster.

The expansion game changed in 2009 when Seattle entered the league and were permitted the right of first refusal on any player on their USL-1 roster. No team had really been ‘promoted’ from division two soccer the way Seattle was and MLS had to, and were happy to adjust their expansion rules to accommodate. While Seattle did make a few early signings to their MLS squad and bring along 5 USL players, Vancouver looks set to kick down the door that Seattle left open. Through the summer window Vancouver went on a spending spree picking up youth internationals, up and coming players from Switzerland and Scandinavia, and want-away former Demon Deacon Cody Arnoux. The Whitecaps roster has swelled to more than 32 players in recent days and while there is no guarantee that all of these players will be signed to MLS contracts this winter, a good number of them likely will. Portland has made a few signings in advance of their entrance to MLS play, but has not been nearly as aggressive as Vancouver. Both teams will still have the opportunity to pillage existing MLS rosters via the expansion draft in November and will have four Superdraft picks in January. Seattle changed the rules to the expansion game in 2009 – Vancouver looks prepared to exploit them.

Another change to the expansion game is the major shift occurring in division two soccer in North America. Why does a change in division two soccer matter to MLS? Of the slated expansion teams between 2009 and 2012, 4 of the 5 clubs are being elevated from the second division rather than created from scratch. The United States Soccer Federation did an extensive study of lower division soccer in North America and around the world and is looking to implement tougher standards for division two clubs to reduce the number of failed franchises. Inside Minnesota Soccer’s Brian Quarstad has posted extensively on the new standards and has insight on which lower division clubs will be up to the financial challenge. With the advantages that Vancouver is capitalizing on, I find it likely that not only will MLS continue to poach successful division two franchises in desirable metro areas, but that ownership groups looking to buy a franchise in MLS may invest in a second division club as the transition looks to be easier than for teams constructed from scratch. Might Philadelphia be the last expansion team not promoted from below? We’ll have to wait and see.

One aspect of the expansion game that hasn’t changed but is rearing its head again is the struggle for stability through soccer-specific stadiums. There is a bevy of good stadium news this summer as Houston is making significant progress toward breaking ground in a downtown location and the Kansas City Wizards are showing off pictures of their half-built-home several times a week. The slow, but steady success of clubs to get soccer-specific stadiums built in their communities only shines brighter on those clubs who have hit countless dead-ends and are threatening to pick up and move. Long time stadium hopeful DC United looks to have completely run out of options inside the beltway, the second incarnation of San Jose continues to hit stumbling blocks despite slow progress, and Columbus has begun to rumble that its field built on the cheap with private money in 1999 is no longer adequate. With fewer and fewer teams lacking adequate facilities, expansion by relocation has become a hot topic yet again. San Jose picked up and moved to Houston in 2005 and several teams, a group usually including Chivas USA, are rumored to be evaluating moves. Chivas USA has announced a mid-September friendly against parent club Chivas Guadalajara in San Diego and some have speculated that Chivas is ‘testing the water’ for a potential move down the coast. San Diego is a major market that MLS is not yet in, but without the ability to get a stadium built, it’s a dangerous gambit to pick up and move. While this may not be an “if you build it, Major League Soccer will come” situation just yet, there definitely exists the possibility of a major metro area wooing themselves a franchise by promising them a stadium.

The more the game changes, it seems, the more it stays the same. While Commissioner Garber has stated his desire to be in New York with the twentieth team, there is open speculation between a few potential suitors. No doubt that bid will be dependent upon the ability to get a stadium built and this time it will likely have to be in New York City proper – not in New Jersey. And beyond the twentieth team, …well, sorry to disappoint but I don’t have any information you don’t already have. The fan initiatives to bring teams to Minneapolis, Miami, Atlanta and other cities is certainly impressive and may yield results if the stars align but there are few guarantees. One thing we have learned though with the announcement earlier this year of Montreal as the nineteenth team is that the game is always being played. Whether MLS is publicly evaluating expansion bids like it did prior to its announcement of Portland and Vancouver, or in private negotiations as with Montreal, the Don is always listening.

One Comment

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