Last Friday, Don Garber’s Major League Soccer announced that three teams will have the opportunity to join America’s fastest growing “sport of the future” since 1978. Three cities will be chosen as the 28th, 29th, and 30th members of a league that already has nearly a third more teams than all of its comparable leagues from around the world. Garber announced the franchise fee for purchasing a new MLS club at the measly price of $200 million (unless of course, your name is David Beckham and in 2014 you exercised a provision of your MLS contract that allows you to get a $40 million discount on an expansion team – yes that actually happened).
So, is MLS’s latest expansion a step towards Americanizing the growing league or an acceleration away from the comparable leagues of South American and European football? Here is my (somewhat) satirical take.
Garber’s most recent announcement comes as the latest in a string of delusional remarks by Major League Soccer’s commissioner who seems like he knows as much about professional football as a 12-year-old who plays FIFA Ultimate Team. The problem with MLS’s inability to break into the American culture does not stem from the number of teams on its roster. The problem with MLS lies in its lack of competitive football and the massive success of flashier, more successful, and increasingly more available leagues such as the Premier League. Garber’s solution, therefore, of adding more teams is equivalent to re-packaging faulty mortgages into Collateralized Debt Organizations and putting them back on the market with A+ ratings. Obviously, this reference is to the fictional movie The Big Short wherein this scenario caused the most significant recession in US history since 1929. Like I said, however, that never happened – how could anyone be that blind?
On second thought, someone could be that blind. Don Garber may be that man. Though Garber’s intentions seem pure, his execution raises serious questions. MLS is a football league first, and an American sports league second. While Garber is modeling MLS on the NBA, MLB, or NFL, he should be modeling it on the Premier League, the Eredivisie, or even Liga MX. As explained in previous articles, Major League Soccer’s path to success lies in increasing the quality of football, recruiting international prospects, and serving as a showroom for Europe’s biggest clubs. At the moment, Don Garber and MLS seem more concerned with squeezing as much cash – in packages of $200 million – than they do with enhancing their actual product.
Back in 2015, MLS announced its expansion from 24 franchises to 28. Before the league has even reached that number, however, they are giving even more wealthy Americans the opportunity of a lifetime! The league’s addition of FC Cincinnati in the 2019 season took their current total of teams to 24. FC Cincinnati was granted a club after completing a stadium deal that required purchasing the land rights of a current high-school football stadium and receiving $35 million in public funds to make public infrastructure improvements. The stadium has a projected attendance capability of over 25,000 and will cost somewhere in the ballpark of $250 million. The league seems to have no problems with the lack of concrete development, enthusiastically backing the stadium’s somewhat stagnant developments. Don Garber even lauded the stadium with his usual spin of one part football analogy and two parts delusion, saying “This could be Bernabéu. This could be Anfield. You have a stadium that’s going to be built in a great, great part of the community.” I’m not sure if Real Madrid or Liverpool’s stadiums were built on high-school football stadiums but, if they were, Garber might actually have a point.
Currently, Nashville, Miami (“Atletico David Beckham United Ronaldo Retirement Home FC”), and Austin are set to become the 25th, 26th, and 27th MLS clubs with the Tennessee and Florida outfits joining in 2020 and the Texas club joining a year later.
The cities with the inside track on the 28th and 29th spots are Sacramento and St. Louis. Sacramento has been itching for a club for years. At one time, they had not only the support of the city’s fans, but they even had a stadium plan. Their only flaw was that their ownership was neither cohesive enough nor wealthy enough for the league’s officials to give them the green light. Since then, however, billionaire Ron Burkle has taken hold of the reigns and seems to have removed any outstanding discrepancies with their bid. Similar to Sacramento, St. Louis at one point seemed a front runner for the previous wave of expansion. Not only had the city been vacated by Stan Kroenke’s Rams but the culture of soccer had begun to flourish in the town as it had during the middle of the 20th century as part of a brief gold age for the game in some Midwestern cities. After voters denied a $50 million funding package for an MLS stadium, however, the bid was immediately pronounced dead. Following that decision, yet, a miraculous turn of events has unfolded in which the St. Louis bid got a new leader in Caroline Kindle Betz, announced a privately financed $250 million stadium, and had their stadium’s plans approved by the city’s Board of Aldermen in a 26-2 vote.
At the moment, the league has yet to announce a formal shortlist of expansion teams but, along with the two cities previously mentioned, names like Phoenix, Detroit, San Diego, and Tampa Bay have been mentioned as potential landing spots for the country’s fastest growing league.
At Major League Soccer’s current rate of expansion, however, do not be surprised to see Don Garber announce in the coming weeks that MLS will soon be expanding to 40 teams by 2024 and 50 teams by 2026. Like the fates of Tony Soprano or Walter White, Major League Soccer’s success lies in its ability to walk the fine line between practical maneuvers towards greater success or delusional decisions that collapse the entire organization. At this rate, Major League Soccer seems more likely to be the title of an HBO or Netflix dramatic series before it reaches the heights of the international or even the American sports world.