Expansion is coming for MLS amidst a suddenly hostile environment

Major League Soccer

It’s really been an incredible year for Major League Soccer.

Bastian Schweinsteiger managing to fit in seamlessly into the Chicago Fire and Jonathan dos Santos joined his brother Gio at LA Galaxy were miracle gets for MLS, allowing them to be able to market more legitimate stars to prove it belongs in the hierchy of club socer. Atlanta United has also found an unexpected place as the shining city on the hill called “The Future of American Soccer,” while Minnesota United stayed competitive after a rough start to the season.

Then Toronto FC capped off what was probably the best season in MLS history, winning the Supporter’s Shield for best regular season record, the Canadian Cup, and then MLS Cup.

A U.S. Men’s National Team roster made up primarily of MLS players led by a former MLS legend in Bruce Arena won the 2017 Gold Cup, proving the league’s homegrown talent can go head-to-head with some of the best in international soccer…and then they crapped the bed in World Cup Qualifying and will sit home next summer.

MLS is also set to expand once again, with four finalists for two spots, Cincinnati, Nashville, Sacramento, and Detroit, with the winners set to be announced Friday. They look to build upon the successes learned over the past 21 years in terms of helping create a good soccer environment in the country.

But not everything has been golden.

There was the minor foible of MLS’ two brand-new franchises not getting included in FIFA 17. The USMNT failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in over 30 years with (mostly) the same roster of MLS players from the Gold Cup, resulting in the resignation of Bruce Arena and weeks of turmoil which threaten Sunil Gulati’s job as U.S. Soccer Federation president. Within a week of that mess, Anthony Precourt, owner of original MLS club Columbus Crew SC, announced he would likely move the club to Austin, Texas, if a new stadium wasn’t promised by the end of the year.

And all that was before a big revelation on Monday evening that SUM, a corpropation which is associated with both New York City FC and MLS, is alleged to have tried to buy the silence of New York Cosmos, a North American Soccer League squad. Such a move would likely have killed NASL, which was dependent on the Cosmos for league minimums and the USSF for Division II classification, which was denied to the league just before the alleged offer.

When the MLS previously expanded, it was with aplomb and momentum on their side. The league was extremely shrewd with its additions, taking care to make sure  candidates for selection would fill a certain void on the map, or, if not that, then at least make the league more competitive.

But now, given the circumstances surrounding both the league and the sport as a whole, the way MLS will award its bids will be looked at with more scruitiny than ever before. It’s no longer about the cities that will be awarded (or not awarded) an opportunity at the top flight of soccer in the United States: it’ll also be an intricate look into the business of the venture.

By the official HOT SPROTS TAKES count, there were originally eight cities left in the running, after St. Louis and Charlotte¬†bowed out of the race for a franchise. A move to San Antonio is now unlikely as well, given the Columbus-to-Austin news. The San Diego bid has been roiled in setbacks after being unable to secure a stadium, so they’re likely out too. That leaves, Detroit, Sacramento, Nashville, and Cincinnatti as eligible cities.

Sacramento and Cincinnatti both have lower-division clubs linked to them and would be a reversion back to MLS’ old expansion policy of “promoting” successful teams that brand well and will bring fans into the fold immediately.

Cincinnatti would instantly become a favoeite if the Columbus-to-Austin move does indeed happen, as they would take over that Ohio-sized hole in the map. Sacramento provide intrigue in terms of the map as well, with the team having promising ownership groups and stadium plans.

Detroit and Nashville would all require new teams to be created and would reflect the new MLS, one which depends on large investments, incessant marketing and an eye for television geography in order to get a foot off the ground quickly. That model worked with Atlanta United, and that franchise has been awarded with the next MLS All-Star game as a result.

Nashville would provide an instant, big-money opponent to Atlanta United, the new darling of the league, a regional rivalry the league could promote the living hell out of to attract new followers down South to the Beautiful Game. Detroit could potentially be a geographical bridge between Toronto FC and Chicago Fire, while providing a helpful Midwest footprint with the absence of Columbus (not to mention a bigger media market.)

MLS absolutely cannot fail with its next four selections, especially given it has already promised teams to both Los Angeles and Miami in the near future. Will the league look for competitive clubs, look for the potential money funnel programs, or try and do both for the sake of fairness? The move has traditionally been to introduce one new side for each conference in each expansion, so we’ll see if that pattern continues moving forward.

Regardless, many fans of American soccer will watch with more skepticism and scrutiny than usual as MLS potentially ventures into territory it hasn’t been in before: going from a likeable and league of underdogs to the imperfect and stubborn embodiment of a struggling soccer pyramid.

No matter what happens, a fire has been stoked in the underbelly of the sport in America, and it could affect the growth of not only MLS, but the growth of the lower divisions. The anger of the fanbase might even change the structure of USSF as a whole. For now, however, MLS tries to change the narrative from one of doubt and questioning to one of optimism in the future of the sport.

 

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