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MLS May Not Ever Expand Above 20 Teams and Why That's a Good Thing

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Great news! In an article printed on Monday by Sporting News, MLS president Mark Abbott stated that there are currently no plans to expand beyond 20 MLS teams. Here's the exact quote:

"Our focus right now is the 20th team in New York and we have not yet set a timeline for expansion beyond that, or even (determined) if we’re going to expand beyond that."

At first glance, some might think that this is terrible news, especially those fans who are not currently anywhere near an MLS city (hello South East!). I mean, more MLS teams means more fans, more fans means more money, more money means a better product right? It seems like a fairly simple equation to follow, but it's not always that easy.

International Standards

Soccer leagues the world over have set the standard league table as being either 18 teams or 20 teams. The Bundesliga, La Liga, English Premier League, Russian Premier League, Mexican Primera Division, Brasileirão, etc. all have 18-20 teams. Even the Chinese Super League only has 16. That's 16 teams for over one billion people...

The point of this is that the standards have been set not by some arbitrary FIFA rule, or because of population size or area mass. As you can plainly see nations with hundreds of millions of people (Russia, Brazil, China) follow the same league size as small countries like Germany, England and France. The reason for it is that 20 teams is the maximum number of clubs you can have while maintaining a balanced schedule, everybody plays the other teams twice, home and away.

This is an admittedly foreign concept to American sports fans, but it's integral to the way soccer works, especially considering that with an unbalanced schedule the Supporter's Shield trophy will essentially become meaningless as other teams will naturally be better suited to win the trophy.

So to maintain a balanced schedule and ensure that the Supporter's Shield trophy actually means something MLS would be wise to not expand beyond 20 teams.

MLS 2... and maybe 3

But just because MLS 1 won't expand beyond 20 teams (hopefully!) doesn't mean that MLS doesn't have plans to expand to other territories. While the near dreams of a South East team in MLS might be looking a little bleak at the moment, what with MLS so focused on getting a second New York City franchise, I'd be surprised if they didn't at least have some cursory idea of establishing their own second division league.

Let's face it. The NASL and USL Pro aren't brand names in the USA or Canada. They just don't carry the kind of recognition and notoriety that MLS does these days. They also don't have the marketing power, media contacts, promotional abilities, or major star players to make any sort of big publicity splash. In a sense, you have two leagues which don't really amount to much on the global scale or public awareness.

Enter MLS with MLS 2 and 3, however, and things start to get a little more interesting.

With an MLS second division, teams would be able to have a certain amount of marketing and promotional muscle that the second and third division teams currently lack. Even as a 2 or 3-level team, they could use the MLS brand to at the very least get some local coverage and possible media deals. With more coverage teams will hopefully get more fans and more fans will hopefully bring in more money... you see where I'm getting at now?

Better yet, with MLS 2 and 3 we could see a sort of promotion and relegation. Now, I won't go so far as to say we'll get the traditional promotion/relegation system in MLS. I think the entire business structure would need to be reworked for that to ever happen, but that's not to say we couldn't see it in some form or another. Don Garber mentioned that they were looking into "simulated" promotion and relegation in the past, so something very well would be in the works now.

And then, with the promotion/relegation system, we could very well see those South East teams crop up from time to time.

Final Thoughts

Of course, all this speculation on my part is dependent on MLS actually sticking to their current plan of "no plans." At any moment they could feel like increasing the amount of teams to normal American-league sized levels. If that happens, it's my hope that MLS will actually fracture into multiple leagues ala MLB. I'd rather have a completely separate Western and Eastern leagues that compete against each other only in the play offs than a horrendously unbalanced schedule.