At halftime of an otherwise unmemorable Major League Soccer All-Star Game on Wednesday night in Kansas City, MLS commissioner Don Garber announced the league's plans to add four more teams by 2020. Considering the league's recent gains on and off the pitch, this was the right move at the right time, with caveats.
Together with New York City FC, which is set to begin play in 2015, the four new franchises will bring the league's total to 24. MLSSoccer.com reports:
The league had previously held to the idea that a 20-team league was the sweet spot for the foreseeable future. MLS has added 10 clubs since the beginning of the 2005 season, and the recent addition of New York City FC—who begin play in 2015—will bring the league to 20.
“These expansion clubs have brought new ideas that have contributed to our strategy for growing the league and the addition of new markets has expanded our geographic reach while increasing our fan base,” Garber said in a league press release.
As the report indicates, Garber's announcement comes in the latter stages of an expansion boom for MLS. Besides the 10 new teams that have joined since 2005, the league has also benefited from the construction of several new, soccer-specific stadiums, including Sporting Park, which hosted Wednesday's All-Star Game.
Attendance, meanwhile, climbed steadily for years, reaching a record peak in 2012 before falling slightly this season, per Soccer America. The 2012 season also brought increased television ratings, per Sporting News, though admittedly those numbers still lag far behind other American sports.
On the pitch, the league's fortunes have followed a similar trajectory over the same period. In 2006, the league approved the so-called "Beckham Rule," which allowed teams to sign star players and pay them outside the strict (and minuscule) salary cap. The rule—formally the Designated Player rule—allowed the Los Angeles Galaxy to sign former Manchester United and Real Madrid superstar David Beckham, who remained with the club until 2012.
Beckham's presence, and the Beckham Rule's increased flexibility, helped raise the league's quality throughout. The Galaxy won consecutive MLS Cups to cap Beckham's tenure stateside, and the league as a whole experienced gains.
"He brought relevancy and credibility, which is something that U.S. soccer, and maybe even more so Major League Soccer, has and continues to crave," former United States international Alexi Lalas told Nancy Armour of the Associated Press.
Taken together, the aggressive expansion, building boom and Beckham Rule propelled MLS to its most prosperous period yet. As such, it's no surprise that Garber and MLS want to expand.
That said, they must do so carefully. The last thing MLS wants is a repeat of the 2002 contraction that saw the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion fold—even if eliminating those teams helped the league in the long run.
Too much of a good thing?
In 2002, one of the benefits of contraction was an immediate reversal of talent dilution across the league. Simply put, there were not enough players with sufficient talent for 12 teams.
That has clearly changed. Now at 19 teams, MLS features a better product on the field than at any other point in its history. But adding five teams—one by 2015 and four more by 2020—could stretch the talent pool again.
But timing is the key here. The expansion will not happen all at once, meaning the league will have time to keep improving and building depth, as it has in recent years. It's a bold strategy on the part of MLS officials to assume that their league will continue to make gains, but that's not a bad thing. Instead, it hints at the faith MLS has in its own product and the future of the sport in America.
Another factor to consider is the identity of team No. 20, NYC FC. Owned by the New York Yankees and Manchester City—two of the richest teams in all of sports—NYC FC is an ideal candidate to continue the building process, from a quality standpoint. This almost surely will not be a poor expansion team struggling to compete. More likely, considering the backers, this will be a team with deep pockets and a determination to make inroads in the New York market.
Rather than diluting the talent pool, NYC FC will have the potential to expand it, thanks to deep pockets and brand recognition piggybacked from the Yankees and City. It stands to reason that MLS sees it this way, too, and is hoping that the league will maintain its progress until 2020, at which point four more teams won't destroy the talent pool.
Again, it's a bold strategy. The 24 teams would make MLS the largest top-flight domestic league in the world, based on number of teams, according to MLSSoccer.com, and bigger does not necessarily mean better in soccer. But MLS has never been better placed to add more teams while maintaining—or even raising—its quality.
The bottom line is that if this works, soccer fans in the U.S. will have an even better product to watch each week. That can only be a good thing.