With the announcement last Wednesday that Atlanta was set to become the 22nd franchise in Major League Soccer in 2017 (we can talk about how they announced Miami first but that Miami will be the 23rd franchise another day), MLS has completed its rebooted advances into the major markets of the Southeastern U.S. Joining Orlando and the aforementioned Miami, Atlanta is MLS's Southeast centerpiece and obviously Arthur Blank’s plans to put the team in the new Falcons stadium that will open in 2017 was enough to satisfy MLS’s hunger to have a team there. But, adding NYCFC’s launch next year, Major League Soccer has moved from 19 teams to 23 in very short order, one short of Don Garber’s plans to have 24 teams in MLS by 2020. This raises the question: is MLS moving too fast?
Sure, for the current MLS fan base, adding road trips to destination cities sound like fantastic ideas. I, for one, look forward to playing tour guide when D.C. United hits the 305 for the first time. I’ll definitely get my South Beach and Coconut Grove fix as well as my Versailles dinner and take my crew to my old law school stomping grounds. Orlando has Disney World and Universal Studios, and who wouldn’t want to make that trip in early March when there is still snow on the grounds of the northern cities. Atlanta is a city with lots to do (and lots of food as well). Finally, in NYCFC we have another reason to hate NY/NJ, though this time—ideally—the road trip will take us to one of the 5 Boroughs instead of "scenic" New Jersey.
But, is all this coming at a cost to the league? What will this do to current teams who are already spread thin and lacking depth on their rosters? What will this do to the salary cap, especially with at least 3 of the new ownership groups speaking of either bringing in loads of world-class designated players or even wishing the salary cap would be abolished altogether? I think if this affects the strength of the competition or, in the case of Atlanta and NYCFC, starting franchises without any base of fan support, this could actually hurt the league in the short term more than it will help it.
Miami, in a Beckham-led effort, will hope not to repeat the ills that forced the Miami Fusion to fold after a few seasons along with the Tampa Bay Mutiny, but the uphill battle is already there in catering to an already saturated, fairweather sports market that competes with world-class beaches, entertainment and nightlife for fan dollars (one that I lived in for 3 years). Atlanta, a team that doesn’t know exactly where its fan base lies, also has a serious battle to compete in a market that has attendance issues with every team not named the Falcons and who lost its hockey team three years ago. And in NYCFC, they essentially are relying on fans of the New York Yankees and Manchester City to drive the fan base, as their outreach so far has been putrid at best. Now, they're talking about building a new stadium outside of the city in Westchester County, something that defeats the entire purpose of NYCFC's existence: MLS soccer inside the Big Apple. It’s not that we don’t want these markets to succeed, but MLS needs to recognize the incredible challenges it faces in each market and have structured plans to make it work. Because if they don't watch it, each market could just as easily be a disaster as they could be successful.
With MLS moving to 23 and eventually 24 teams in the next 6 years, the time is now for the league to focus on developing the talent that will be necessary to sustain so many teams in the first tier of the the U.S. Soccer pyramid. That means actually working with the North American Soccer League (even though NASL views itself as a first-tier alternative instead of the second-tier league it is) to get it to 20 healthy teams and continuing its work with USL-Pro to get to 20 solid teams that aren’t just reserve teams of MLS clubs. Using these leagues coupled with identifying young talent through academies, the National Premier Soccer League and the Premier Developmental Leagues will allow for America to develop the talent necessary to sustain the teams in the top 3 tiers of the pyramid, allowing for key cities across the nation to develop and grow franchises that we need to increase an already growing soccer base.
MLS is taking a big gamble with focusing its efforts on rapid expansion instead of focusing on making the franchises we already have better. It’s a move that without direct supervision could spiral the league into a dimension it once was in and vowed never to return. Hopefully they have a plan and it works out to perfection, because if it doesn’t, 2003 MLS will call 2017 MLS and ask them for its problems back.