Next Wave of MLS Expansion

MLS expansion is a fun little topic of late, given the recent success (attendance wise and quality of play wise) of new faces in the league (Seattle, Toronto, Philly, Vancouver, and Portland). Almost every US soccer fan has an opinion on the current league structure. I’m of the camp that advocates one table, no playoffs, and promotion/regulation'”but those three characteristics require a more mature and full MLS as well as a clear US professional system. We all want expansion, more teams mean more supporters and ingrains football in the American sporting heart. Yet it was expansion that doomed US pro soccer in the 80’s, which means we all have to tread carefully. Thing is, few Americans have the necessary long-view mindset, most of us think only in terms of the immediate world around us. The MLS have done an excellent job of measured, sure growth and there’s no reason to believe they won’t continue to do so.

So, lately I’ve been mulling it over: What cities would I like to see in the MLS? What cities deserve to be in the MLS? And, what cities could last in the MLS? There really isn’t much overlap in my answers to these questions. I think that this would be true of many of us MLS supporters. Let’s take a minute and ponder why this is the case on a city-by-city basis.

New York City: The Red Bulls own New York but the former NY/NJ MetroStars play in Jersey and shouldn’t have the market all to themselves. In the EPL, London is able to support a slew of high profile teams. Now given that Americans are still a bit ham-fisted in understanding soccer, there’s still no reason why there shouldn’t be another NYC team for the MLS. So, that’s the queue for a resurrection of the New York Cosmos. It seems that the league is on-board and give the Cosmos credit, they have been building a solid academy to compliment their two year media barrage. The fact that the testimonial match for Manchester United legend Paul Scholes will bring the Old Trafford god Eric Cantona back to coach the Cosmos against United is a pretty solid sign that this will be the next expansion team after Montreal enters next season.

Now where else? Let’s start with the cities I’d like to see.

Minneapolis: There are few cities more pleasant to live in than Minneapolis. The Twin Cities Minneapolis/St.Paul are clean, well-layed out, financially solvent (relative term, I know), literate, and enthusiastic. There are a slew of low-tier squads in the cities and a vibrant college community that couples well with the immigrant community (Hispanic, Southest Asian, and East African) which I think would lend itself well to an initial fanbase. OF course, it really comes down to money, code for ownership and attendance. The top professional team'”NSC Minnesota Stars'”is not independent enough financially to be viable right now. Nor has attendance been very good, according to the NASL Minnesota has averaged 1,423 which is the lowest in the league. Even though Minnesota has been doing well enough record-wise and has been just keeping its head above water that does not inspire confidence in the MLS front office. Yet, a Minneapolis team would make logistical sense, being another bridge city between the West and East coast teams.

Detroit: there is no reason to believe that Detroit couldn’t maintain a team. Even though Michigan has reeked of poverty for decades now, somehow Detroit sports excel. A MLS team here would make for a strong Midwest presence in the league, which has become too Western for my tastes. It would tap into regional rivalries and set up a solid supporters train from Chicago, Columbus, Kansas City, and Toronto. I also very much like the idea currently being floated about a Silverdome retrofit, “the Apostolopoulos family plans to remove the dome and divide the stadium into three sections. At the stadium’s ground level, will be a convention center/concert hall as well as a multi-purpose arena, capable of hosting hockey, basketball, and other indoor sports. Resting on top of those two indoor facilities, will be a roughly 30,000-seat outdoor soccer stadium with natural grass. The current upper deck will essentially act as a lower bowl for the outdoor stadium.” The Michigan Bucks have kept themselves going at the USL level and that shows real promise'”let’s remember that several of the current MLS teams came out of the USL.

Florida: Yeah, I know Florida is not a city, it’s a state. But there’s something we have to come to terms with, Florida is a college sports state. Specifically, college football and college basketball dominate. It took Major League Baseball a ridiculous amount of time to establish teams in Florida and to be honest, the fans still don’t take the team seriously. You’d think that baseball and soccer would have a strong presence given the immigrant community, colleges, and ability to play year round. But the Miami Fusion soured the MLS on Florida even though unfairly, “Miami in the minds of many MLS supporters seemed like a “failed market”. But to Miami Fusion supporter it seemed more like Miami was not so much a failed market as Horowitz was a failed owner.” Miami shouldn’t have to endure this stigma given that it “remains a city full of knowledgeable soccer fans and fºtbol fanaticos. It is a cosmopolitan, international city and thought of as a “Gateway to South America”. A lot has changed since 1998 in Miami. Due in part to immigration there are even more soccer fans there from, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Argentina, Brazil, Jamaica, Haiti, Mexico and elsewhere in Central and South America and the Carribbean. Additionally, many young US born kids who grew playing and watching soccer in the 1980s and 1990s have come of age. They’re in their 20’²s and 30s and need a club to support.” But I can’t see Miami as the team. It would make more sense for the MLS to promote a different Florida city like Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, or Tampa. Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the NASL are the heirs of the Miami Fusion and although they have had good attendance (averaging 4,327) they are facing serious problems with their stadium. That type of hiccup not only annoys, it casts doubt onto long-term sustainability. For my money, Orlando or Tampa would be brilliant. Already Orlando City is dominating in the USL even though they are a team caught in the ridiculously cavernous Florida Citrus Bowl. Tampa is averaging an attendance of 3,031 and a bump up to the MLS would certainly increase that in the same way it did in Seattle and Portland.

North Carolina: Again, I know it’s a state but I’m eying the Carolina RailHawks to grow into their big-boy pants sometime in the next couple of years. Cary, NC overlaps with Raleigh and Durham and is a stone’s throw from Greensboro. This area gives us the soccer presence of Duke and cracks the Southeast market, which the MLS needs to begin to exploit if it wants to not only continue to develop player talent but maintain its current financial success. The RailHawks have not been without its own money troubles but the squad has produced some solid players and can claim an average home attendance of 2,188. I know the instinct is to say Atlanta but if the recent NHL failure has taught us anything is that Atlanta is an iffy market at best.

Finally, with Montreal coming in next season and Edmonton doing well maintaining its new NASL team, we should consider another MLS team in Canada. Toronto FC has done very well and Vancouver looks slick (even if their play has been less that inspiring thus far). So, given that the NHL has failed in Atlanta and Phoenix leaving Canada to re-incorporate their once lost teams, let’s give Ottawa a chance to shine. Ottawa is well placed and has a deep academy presence. Although stadium approval has been an issue, I think a commitment from the MLS could turn out to be quite beneficial for the league.

Some things to also mull over'”Why not Rochester? And if you want an underdog, always look to Milwaukee. But the simple fact is if the MLS basic critieria is (1) Committed long-term ownership with deep pockets, (2) Approved plan to build a soccer-specific stadium where the team would control revenue streams such as parking and concessions, (3) A healthy media market and (4) A strong soccer fan-base then every city is going to be arguably weak in at least one category. With the US economy still barely above a flatline for what we’re use to, expansion is going to have to be put on a back burner for awhile.