Is expansion the answer to fixing MLS’ soccer standing?

There’s been a lot of recent buzz about expansion in Major League Soccer, the top tier of American soccer.

Part of that has been fueled by the league. MLS introduced two new franchises, Minnesota United FC and Atlanta United, this season and a lot of eyes have justifiably been set on those two squads.

Atlanta United has recovered nicely from the PR fiasco that was the team’s first nationally-televised home game to be among the top teams in the league, recently signing marksman Josef Martinez away permanently from Italian Serie A side Torino FC. AU has been aggressive on the pitch, with a non-stop attacking strategy that relies on youth and speed to get to the back of the net.

The Red and Black have benefitted from having deep pockets; Arthur Blank, Home Depot mogol and owner of the Atlanta Falcons, brought MLS to Atlanta to share the new Mercedes-Benz Dome with the Falcons and try to shed Atlanta’s reputation as a bad sporting town.

Blank has spent a pretty penny importing many foreign-based players and Gerardo Martino, the former FC Barcelona and Argentine national team manager to bring an attractive product to the ATL, and so far it seems to have worked, as 50,000+ fans have filled Bobby Dodd Stadium on the campus of Georgia Tech to watch the team at work.

On the opposite end of the expansion spectrum lies Minnesota United, whose season has been a little less fortunate than the Red and Blacks’.

The fledgling team has been wrecked by international call-ups going off on duty, as World Cup Qualifiers are ongoing. The Loons are still looking for their first win after four games and stand at dead last in the stacked Western  Conference with a -12 goal differential, a mark which is well behind the next closest team, DC United, whose goal differential is -6.

The former USL and NASL side has had a colorful history and tradition and more than once had to be saved from folding as a franchise on its way up to the MLS level. MUFC, while hyper-competitive in the lower leagues, just doesn’t have nearly the resources of its peers, and it has shown severely.

This, of course, sets the table for the MLS’ plans. MLS Commissioner Don Garber has made it known he wants to see MLS at 28 teams by 2020, a daunting task as it currently stands. The MLS accepted 12 proposals from cities across the country for consideration as an MLS franchise earlier this year and will ultimately select four of those bids. Some of the cities under consideration currently have teams at a lower level (a la MUFC,) while others would have to start from scratch (a la Atlanta United.)

The formal bids can be viewed on MLS’ website, but there’s something that has to be considered here: what, exactly, is the MLS’ mission with expansion?

Per Garber, the league plans to announce at least two new teams by the “second quarter of 2017,” which would be the period from April to June.

Currently, the league sits at 22 teams, with two teams introduced this season and Los Angeles FC set to start play in 2018. David Beckham has also been promised an MLS expansion franchise, meaning there would be four spots open for other potential franchisees over the next three years.

The league expanded just once between 1998 and 2005, with two of the four teams added ultimately folding. Since 2006, there has been at least one team added to the league every year, all of which are currently thriving.

The way the league sees it, it’s most likely a no-lose situation. Soccer is becoming more popular than ever in the United States and bringing in new franchises means bringing in money in new merchandise and ticket sales. That in turn makes it more palatable to television networks, who may be willing to offer lots of money for the broadcast rights.

But there’s a historical precedent to the MLS’ expansionpalooza, and it didn’t end well.

The original NASL (only somewhat related to the current NASL) ruled the soccer culture in America during the 1970’s and even managed to bring in world-class players, most famously Pele. In an effort to gain on the momentum of Pele’s success with the New York Cosmos, the league expanded from 18 to 24 teams in just one season, going against recommendations to fold franchises.

Many teams, especially those in dire financial stress, struggled to keep up and in the 1980’s, the bubble finally burst. Massive debts, combined with a declining interest in the NASL product in favor of Major League Indoor Soccer, ultimately resulted in the death of the old NASL.

MLS seems to be hedging its bets to try and prevent that bubble from bursting, being frank about expansion fees (~$150 million) and the timeline the league expects to take in an effort to find committed owners and cities.

But the problem the league faces is most prominent in salary floors and ceilings.

The average salary in MLS is $364,177.33, a 5.8 percent increase from last season, but the big number to look out for is the median salary, which stands at ~$117,000, a paltry salary compared to peer leagues around the world.

It certainly doesn’t help that the league keeps those salaries artificially low, under the premise of operating in a world market. Jorge Villafana, a US Men’s National Team regular, recently moved from MLS to Liga MX, and tripled his salary in the process. Jermaine Jones, a USMNT icon, recently had to take around a $200,000 cut to transfer from Colorado Rapids to LA Galaxy as well.

That’s pretty damning.

Sports Illustrated recently went through how crazy MLS’ player allocation rules are, complete with a flowchart that can best be described as hard to follow. The league’s annual SuperDraft also helps with keeping salaries low, especially in the first few years of these rookie deals.

Giving every franchise $800,000 in “targeted allocation money,” meant to help teams spend on big-name players, has seemed to have had only moderate success, with the gap between haves and have-nots expanding more than ever, the league finds itself in dangerous waters if the current and next batches of expansion franchises flounder.

If MLS sees itself on the same world stage as leagues like the Premier League, Liga BBVA and Budesliga, it’s going to have to do something about its salary cap and salary structures if it has any hope of retaining talent or recruiting talent to play on these teams.

Otherwise, expansion, no matter how well-intentioned, will go for naught.

 

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