Opinions, we've all got one. Even if some of us aren't quite as gung-ho about MLS as others, I'm sure there are more than a few of you who are now interested in the league since the Portland Timbers will be playing a major role in it for the foreseeable future. As such I feel like I should share my perfect vision for the league moving forward. What I would like to see happen, and how we can create a more authentic experience off the field.
Just note that, seeing as how this is an editorial piece, this is entirely subject to my own opinions and you, like everybody else, can and probably will disagree with those opinions. If you do disagree, I'd love to have a respectful discussion in the comments. Let's keep things polite, cordial and most of all fun. That's what discussions are for, right? If not, I'll tell your boss that instead of working you're reading my blog. Kidding, of course.
Major League Expansion
As of 2011 we'll officially have 18 teams in the league, the recommended amount for a first division league by FIFA's own standards. In 2012 we'll have 19 teams and in 2013 we'll more than likely have a 20th team lined up with the New York Cosmos generally being the most favored for that position. Once we reach 20 teams, it is my opinion that MLS should stop expanding, at least in it's current incarnation.As somebody who is a fan of not only MLS, but also soccer in the world as a whole, I have trouble envisioning a 30-34 team league like we have with American football, baseball, basketball and hockey. The way we have it now, at 20 teams, a simple home-away for every other team would not be entirely impossible. 38 games/season would be pretty manageable in this day and age, especially, considering that overall, teams are doing much better in attendance than they were five years ago.
Were we to grow too far beyond that, however, we'd be forced into divisions like with American football where we'd only play our regional rivals (however MLS decides to break that up). Playing teams in he other "divisions" would only occur in the post-season play-off tournament. This is unheard of in modern soccer leagues around the world and I feel would play a divisive role in our fans. Believe it or not, many MLS fans today actually came from being fans of European soccer teams/leagues. We've slowly built that fanbase up by introducing more traditional soccer norms. Over expansion and further "Americanizing" MLS could drive a wedge in that fanbase once again.
Let's not beat around the bush. Major League Soccer, as it stands today, is fast becoming a viable, profitable organization. It's something that we couldn't have really said back in 2007 even and it's something that each fan of MLS should be proud of. We are making soccer a true success story in the United States and Canada.
Unfortunately, every great first division league needs a stable and solid second division league to back it up. That's something we don't have. Try as the NASL or USL might, the constant expansion and contraction of each of those leagues is a little embarrassing as neither can seem to find stable footing within our soccer pyramid.
Enter MLS. After team #20, it's my opinion that MLS should introduce an MLS 2 league to take over for the second division leagues which are, quite frankly, failing. MLS 2 would offer an alternative and bring in owners of established or new teams within the MLS single entity umbrella. Income from these teams would obviously be lower but then so would costs as teams in MLS2 would not be expected to splurge on players or grandiose stadiums.
Creating this would also give MLS the power to expand into untapped markets, like the South, but with far less risk involved than establishing a MLS 1 team.
The creation would not be smooth, as Americans and Canadians would probably still be hesitant to buy into a supposedly inferior league as opposed to watching MLS, however, given that the team is using MLS's name and reputation that comes with it a certain amount of legitimacy not found within USL or the NASL.
Additionally, securing local and regional television deals for MLS 2 teams would be easier given the reputation MLS has. Sure, national TV deals would be rare, if ever, but securing even stable local TV deals would bring in additional cash flow for MLS 2 teams. More TV deals means more sponsorships. More sponsorships means a better team/stadium. It's a nice trickle-down effect.
And that leads me right into...
Hot button issue! I've heard more arguments and discussions on promotion/relegation in MLS than any other topic ever concerning our league. It's a huge point of contention between soccer purists and soccer realists who disagree about its effectiveness in a league like MLS. Both have strong points, to be honest and I usually prefer to stay on the sidelines of such an argument. However, for the sake of my perfect vision, I'd like to include it.
Given my series of events in establishing an MLS 2 league I believe that promotion/relegation could become feasible far sooner than our current system. Perhaps not right away after establishing MLS 2, but given time.
Let's look at the facts:
Many promotion/relegation opponents often cite that, being a single entity, owners in MLS would absolutely not allow any sort of system to take place. Makes sense, after all, as being relegated would mean a severe drop in profitability, particularly because getting into MLS in the first place required anywhere from a $10 million to $40 million fee.
However, given that MLS is a single entity, one would assume that MLS 2 would simply be absorbed into that single entity. Essentially meaning that all owners own a share of the league no matter if they are in MLS 1 or MLS 2 thus removing the profitability obstacle.
Yes, an MLS 2 team would earn less than an MLS 1 team, but since all profits flow into MLS before being divided up anyway it wouldn't really matter to that specific owner. Instead they could continue to focus on building their team in order to get promoted back into MLS 1.
This is also banking on the fact that having promotion and relegation is popular enough to draw enough fans that, even if MLS 2 isn't profitable by itself, the increased fans watching the promotion/relegation battles would be popular enough to justify keeping it around. This is, of course, its own argument.
There are other reasons to argue back and forth about promotion and relegation, of course, even beyond the profitability argument. However, this system would at least neuter the most important one.
So there you have it: my ideal MLS expansion vision. I would hate to see our league be broken down into divisions where we only play our regional rivals outside of the play-offs. I also believe that as a nation we need a strong and healthy second division soccer league to keep the momentum going for the sport in this nation. Without MLS I simply don't see the latter happening, at least not in my lifetime.
What do you think MLS should do regarding expansion? Sound off in the comments!