You knew this was coming. On the day before MLS Cup the league announced that the Board of Governors had voted to support expanding the 20-team league to 28. You read that correctly - twenty-eight.
MLS is already on its way to reaching 24 teams in the next five years - the Atlanta Nonsense-Names, Miami Beckhams, LA Totally Not Chivas-es, and Minnesota Loons seem all but set to make up the newbie list for that span - but there is more interest than there are expansion slots available.
So, the league is going to do what any reasonable capitalist venture would do and jump in size to something closer to the other major American leagues, which each feature 30 to 32 teams. Sacramento, with their big stadium progress, seems a lock for one of the new, new spots. Joining them may be the likes of San Antonio and Indianapolis, which both feature ambitious leadership groups.
Expect fans to clamor for St. Louis, as they always do (even though no viable ownership group has ever presented itself) and possibly Charlotte or Raleigh, which would fill a gap in MLS' east coast profile, or San Diego, which fits the "big city with limited pro sports options" profile (and has awesome weather, all the time - it's annoying, really).
The unstated fallout from expansion, though, will come in the form of realignment. Right now, MLS finagles a 34-game season for each team in two 10-team conferences. The goal is basically to create as balanced a schedule as possible with the knowledge that a truly balanced schedule in a country the size of a continent is unworkable. To get there, the league tries for double-round robin scheduling within each conference and single games for each cross- conference matchup, with "third games" against conference foes to make up any shortfall.
This scheduling format seems tailor-made for a 24-team league. With two 12-team conferences, each team would play 22 games in-conference and 12 games out, for a total of 34. It's elegant, really.
With 28 teams though, the two-conference format breaks down in a hurry. Either more games are required - two 14-team conferences would require a 40-game season - or else you go to an unbalanced schedule within each conference. Or, you add new divisions.
Because they tend to distort the competition, I've long argued for fewer divisions whenever possible, but sometimes splitting the league is necessary. I've also expected for a while that the league will ultimately end up at 27 teams across three divisions, which lends itself nicely to the current 34-game schedule. Since 28 teams is the new target for the league, it's worth noting that a 4-division setup would lend itself to a 33-game calendar just as well, with I guess one extra game - maybe against an out-of-division rival? - to make 34 and prevent any home-away imbalances.
Of course, should the league move beyond 28, all bets are off.
In the interest of unbridled speculation, let's look at how a 4-division MLS could look, complete with wild guesses as to the identity of teams 25-28. The top goal here should be to protect geographic rivalries above all else, and then to make some modicum of geographic sense. With that in mind:
- Pacific Division: LA Galaxy, LAFC*, San Jose Earthquakes, Sacramento Republic**, Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders, Vancouver Whitecaps
- Central Division: Columbus Crew SC, Indy Eleven^, Chicago Fire, Minnesota United*, Sporting Kansas City, Colorado Rapids, Real Salt Lake
- South Division: Houston Dynamo, FC Dallas, San Antonio TBD^, Orlando City SC, Miami TBD*, Atlanta United*, North Carolina TBD^
- Northeast Division: Toronto FC, Montreal Impact, New England Revolution, New York City FC, New York Red Bulls, Philadelphia Union, D.C. United
(* denotes an announced expansion team; ** denotes a highly probable expansion team, and ^ denotes Adam making stuff up)
The conferences really only exist for that 34th game - which would be played across divisions within each conference - and for playoffs. Figure the top one or two teams from each division makes the postseason, along with however many "at large" teams from each conference to make numbers.
I don't really relish the idea of D.C. United only playing the Orlandos and Chicagos of the league once per year, but something like this alignment will be the natural and necessary result of expansion. The question isn't whether the unbalanced, multi-conference schedule is here to stay; it's how to make it work the best it can.