Of all the ESPN 30 for 30’s that could be made about American sports leagues, I think Major League Soccer would probably rank highest in the “feel good story” and the “most interesting” categories. Major League Soccer began play in 1996 with a meager 10 clubs, and a group of cautiously optimistic owners who recognized the perilous nature of investing in soccer in America. The NASL’s meteoric rise and collapse just twelve years earlier was still a fresh reminder that perhaps America wasn’t ready for soccer. The staying-power of the beautiful game in the United States was at best uncertain at the time.
Against all odds Major League Soccer has managed to achieve extraordinary success, and is the only league to do so when established after the modern-era boom in American sports. (Just ask the recently defunct AAF how difficult such a task can be). TV coverage, gaudy athlete salaries, celebrity status, and luxury amenities were already commonplace by the 90’s. MLS had to find a way to thrive, absent the panache, and do so inside a culture that was already near saturated by sports media coverage. To add to the challenge, it had to sell a sport that had historically not been embraced in this country. Despite America being the most sports crazy culture in the world, and seemingly sated by NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, NCAAB, and NCAAF, Major League Soccer had something different to offer. Never underestimate the value of variety on a buffet menu!
I speak from experience, too. I grew up in the 90s. My two best friends were avid soccer players from an early age, but I stubbornly stuck to baseball – I just didn’t “get” soccer. That changed in 1996, when a perfect storm of events occurred. I turned 11, baseball got boring, my friends’ pressure to try soccer finally cracked me, and MLS began. I still remember the early years of the league, and it certainly influenced me in a big way. Hell, in the 90s most people didn’t know the rules and couldn’t name a single professional player if you asked them to. In my teens, I specifically remember being asked in high school if I played any sports. I’d reply: “Yea, I play soccer,” only to be asked…. “No, do you play any real sports?” The struggle for the sport and its fans as a whole was real. Exposure was the key to my adolescent rebirth into soccer fanaticism, and it is a maturation that did not reach adulthood until 2017. Thank God for Atlanta United!
Over the years MLS has had its struggles, and it has done well to continue its growth during its lean years. But it faces a different challenge now: How to grow appropriately when interest is booming? It might seem like a harmless scenario, but wrong decisions can squander growth, destabilize the league, or even result in franchises folding. I would have loved to have written a book on the historical development of American soccer with multiple chapters devoted to how MLS has developed over the years, and how it should develop in the years to come. Unfortunately, with my full time job as a lawyer it would take me 10 years to properly research and write a book like that. By that time, my topic would have already come to pass. So lieu of a book, a thorough (LONG) article was in order. For those of you who read the article, but disagree with my positions, please keep in mind: I’m a fan of MLS – not an authority, and my suggestions certainly are not data drive. Everything I have put together is simply what I think makes the most logical sense, and what I think makes for the most compelling, entertaining, and profitable soccer league in the United States.
So without further ado, here it is: the answer to every puzzling question that awaits MLS in the coming future; everything we want to see regarding expansion, conference alignment, regular season structure, scheduling, playoff structure, salary structure, and even [someone ring the gong] promotion/relegation.
NOTE: As you will undoubtedly notice, the major topics of this article are all interconnected and can be difficult to discuss in isolation. So if something appears to go undiscussed, it is likely because it is taken up at a different portion of the article. Also, please don’t make fun of my diagrams! I have paint shop and Excel – I’m fully aware that my graphics game is weak.
Expansion and Conference Alignment
A BRIEF HISTORY OF EXPANSION
A little bit of history is needed in order to put this topic into proper context: In 1996, MLS kicked off its inaugural season with just 10 clubs. By 1998 they had expanded to twelve clubs, only to see both Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny fold after 2001. The league regrouped and saw its first major growth spurt begin in 2005. Between 2005 and 2012, the league welcomed Chivas, RSL, Houston (San Jose relocation), Toronto, San Jose (resurrection), Seattle, Philly, Vancouver, Portland, and Montreal. Although Chivas ultimately folded by the end of 2014, the era still saw eight stable clubs enter the league in the span of eight years. While impressive, that expansion era is still dwarfed by the league’s most recent growth.
In 2015, expansion began again. In the past four years, MLS has welcomed New York City, Orlando City, Atlanta United, Minnesota United, Los Angeles Football Club, and FC Cincinnati. In addition, the league has firm plans to welcome Nashville FC and Inter Miami in 2020, as well as Austin FC in 2021. The seven year period between 2015 and 2021 will presumably see MLS add nine new clubs AND award expansion rights to as many as three other cities. Even at their best, the NFL and NBA never saw expansion that robust.
The difference is not just in the rapid increase in the number of clubs, but also in the valuation for ownership rights in MLS. Toronto FC paid a mere $10 million dollars to enter the league in 2007. Vancouver paid $40 million in 2011. Atlanta paid $70 million. (I presume because Arthur blank was committed to joining the league as early as 2011, but chose to wait until the completion of his new stadium before kicking off his inaugural season). Remarkably, NYCFC and Orlando each paid $100 million dollars to join MLS in 2015. (Dr. Evil would be proud!) The fee rose again to $150 million dollars for FC Cincinnati and Nashville FCC, and it will rise again to $200 million for the next two entries into the league. You would think that expansion fees of such magnitude would limit the pool of potential investors, but despite the drastic fee increase and the acceptance of so many new owners, the league still has at least ten potential expansion bids to choose from in the wake of its announcement that the league would expand to thirty clubs. It is staggering to think about and clearly the league is in a very stable place now. But it leaves us with a bunch of new questions to ask:
Just how many clubs should MLS seek to expand to? Should they stop at the 30, or go higher?
Which cities/ownership groups should receive the remaining vacancies for expansion?
With the increased size of the league, how best can we align the clubs into conferences?
Do we need divisions in addition to conferences?
Once we have our conferences established, what competitive structure should we implement? Do we want to keep playoffs? If so, how many clubs do we allow into the playoff bracket? Speaking of playoff brackets, should we have a two-leg or single-leg competition, and how long should the playoffs take?
How many matches is “too few” for a regular season? How many matches is “too many” in light of the other domestic and international competitions that occur throughout the year?
Once we have our competitive structure, how “in the world” do we schedule it properly in light of North American weather extremes, FIFA international dates, and most of the world operating on a differing schedule entirely?
As our league has undoubtedly matured, is there room for the possibility of promotion/relegation in American soccer? If so, how do you convince these new owners who have written checks with 8 zeros to buy-in?
With a new Collective Bargaining Agreement approaching in 2020, and a new broadcast rights negotiation coming in 2021, what changes should be made to the salary cap structure? Should we even have a salary cap?
How much do we still value parity in comparison to the desire to let more ambitious clubs actually strive for international excellence?
We all want answers to these questions and we are often critical of MLS for not having answered them yet. People criticize MLS because it is not up to the same quality of leagues like the Premier League or La Liga. Those people are completely missing the intrigue that MLS has to offer. If you pay attention, you can watch, witness, and take part in how a league, that isn’t even old enough to rent a car, chooses to grow and weave its way into the fabric of international club soccer. That is an opportunity that very few fans get to enjoy. The BEAUTY of Major League Soccer is that it ISN’T the best and that it ISN’T fully developed. Relish the drama as it tries to be!
Just how many teams should MLS seek to expand to? Should they stop at the 30, or go higher?
Which cities/ownership groups should receive the remaining vacancies for expansion?
The first question, while perhaps a tad oversimplified, is really just a question of how many clubs can the league accommodate while maintaining optimal competitive intrigue and integrity. I tried to put myself in the shoes of Don Garber and the various owners in the league; I really tried to look at the question from their perspective. In doing so, I came to the obvious conclusion. There is A LOT of money on the table. However, after really thinking about, it occurred to me that I was trying to answer the wrong question.
We are business men and women, and we are selling a product. If we truly want our business to succeed, it is in our best interests to ensure Major League Soccer is the most entertaining, competitive, and intriguing league possible. New clubs can achieve this goal and their investment in the league is certainly valuable, but too many clubs can just as easily detract from our league’s quality as well. Expansion is about investment and exposure, but if the product itself is sub-par then both investment and exposure are squandered. The RIGHT question is: “What is the best possible version of MLS? What competitive structure do we want our league to utilize?” Once we have an answer to that question, we can then intelligently determine how many clubs are best for the league.
So while I started this article right out of the gates with a focus on expansion, just like I’m sure the owners are doing right now, I won’t answer those questions until I’ve made decisions on everything else. I hope MLS owners follows suit.
With the league size increasing, how best can we align the teams into conferences?
Two Conference System
Do we need divisions in addition to conferences?
Most of America’s other sports leagues demonstrate a common theme: divisions. I. Hate. Divisions.
MLB, the NFL, and the NHL utilize divisions to compartmentalize competition and whittle down the best performing teams in a season. The result is an overly narrowed competitive structure where a team is really just trying to be the best of a handful of other teams. It also results in a dull exercise of repetition. Year after year, the same few teams square off against each other. Sure, they’ll play various other opponents too, but the race is always the same. On the other hand, the NBA sticks to two conferences, has conference and non-conference play, and awards playoff spots based on conference ranking. Also, the NBA has the advantage of playing 82 games, which enables them to keep a two-conference structure with relative ease.
Soccer around the world is staunchly different in comparison. Most leagues have no more than 20 or so clubs. EPL, Serie A, Ligue 1, Brasileiro Serie A, and La Liga each have 20 clubs. Bundesliga, Eredivisie, and Liga MX have 18 each. The largest league outside the US is the Argentine SuperLiga, with 26 clubs. Most leagues utilize a single table format where every club plays every other club twice, and a champion is decided by regular season performance. Playoff structures are not unheard of, but even leagues where playoffs are used, the size of the league is kept small to ensure that all clubs play each other. When Austin FC enters the league in 2021, MLS will enter uncharted territory as the largest first division league in the world.
MLS has always marched to the beat of a different drum than that of world soccer. Some people find it endearing. (I’m one of them). Others consider it blasphemy and a corruption of the purity of the game. MLS’s conference alignment and season structure is one of its many idiosyncrasies. Despite its uniqueness, the current system in MLS has admittedly worked quite well. Two conferences of 12 clubs each. Conference foes play each other home and away, all non-conference foes are played once each with the home club alternating each season, and all clubs have the same number of home matches. At the end, we take the best clubs into a playoff to decide a champion. The only drawback is that clubs do not play truly equal schedules, as one conference may be more challenging than the other in any given year. This has been the one stumbling block holding the Supporter’s Shield back from being a truly coveted award. I’m not suggesting that the Shield serve as the league championship, but I think we all can agree that we wish it carried a bit more prestige.
With the league announcing that it will expand to 30 clubs, the current system cannot be maintained, and it draws into question whether MLS should adopt a new conference alignment as well. The answer is: ABSOLUTELY NOT, keep the current Eastern and Western conference setup.
The thing I love about MLS (and every soccer league in the world) is that it maintains equal competition on a fully national scale. There aren’t artificial lines drawn that restrict which clubs play each other in a given season. Regardless of what size our league may become, I do not want to see MLS overly divide its clubs like other major sports in America. I don’t want to see Atlanta, Orlando, Miami, Nashville, and DC United all chasing each other season after season. For the sake of competitive integrity, entertainment, intrigue, and a shear desire for VARIETY, a two conference system should be maintained. The reasoning will be clear in later portions of the article.
Likewise, and my apologies in advance to Mike Conti, I don’t want to see a two-conference system that is completely segregated for an entire regular season. This is ultimately just as restrictive as divisions, as it limits the competition a given club may face based on geography, and it would eliminate almost all inter-conference play. Imagine a league where Atlanta does not play Seattle, LAFC, or LA Galaxy for nearly a decade because those clubs can’t make it deep enough into a playoff to meet us in the final. Currently, the USL does exactly this. While I don’t favor the setup, I recognize that for the USL this system drastically reduces travel expenses; so I completely understand the reasoning behind it. However, Major League Soccer is beyond the point of establishing a conference system and regular season structure on the premise of what is cheapest for travel. There are far better options available and I cannot think of any reasons why the whole regular season should be exclusively conference competition. There are plenty of better setups.
If the league grows beyond 30 clubs, honestly the simplest solution is to go to single table and have every club play every other club once. That it is the simplest solution, and it is certainly acceptable, but it is also a bit boring. If that was all I wanted to suggest, I wouldn’t need an entire article to say so. Let’s look elsewhere.
The problem is that most setups create various problems such as requiring too many regular season matches (or too few), or result in unbalanced conference sizes, or prevent balanced home game scheduling for clubs within those conferences, or all of the above. I’ve already said that a two conferences system is best, but let’s knock a few other set-ups out of contention before we move on to my league structure discussion:
Of the listed options, the only other workable scenarios are a 27-club league divided into 3 conferences OR 30 club league divided into 3 conferences. In the highly likely event the league does not adopt my ideas, I hope they go with one of these options. On the other hand, it does not give any room for further expansion (if desired) or for promotion/relegation. So there are flaws in a 3 conference system, and a 2 conference alignment under my proposed competitive structure allows for up to 38 clubs, and is more intriguing.
We will discuss WHY in Part 2, coming soon...