And now there will be 21 teams. Or, that escalated quickly.
The Kansas City Star
It wasn't that long ago (9 years in fact), that Major League Soccer was a 10-team league struggling to fill cavernous football stadiums and clinging to boisterous but small clumps of fans in several major cities. It also wasn't that long ago that two men (Lamar Hunt and Philip Anschutz) owned nearly the entire league.
Looking at the state of the league, it seems much longer ago than that. Just take a look at the two MLS Conference Final matches this week in Kansas City and Portland to see how far the sport and this league have come. Three of the franchises didn't exist in 1996 when the league began (Real Salt Lake, Portland Timbers and Houston Dynamo) and Sporting Kansas City barely even resembles its former self these days. Both stadiums will be packed to the rafters too.
Since the end of the 2004 season (which saw Kansas City fall in the MLS Cup to D.C. United thanks in part to an uncalled handball), Major League Soccer has turned on the expansion afterburners. Nine teams have joined the league, with two more now on the way.
On Tuesday night, to a packed house, Orlando City was announced as the league's 21st franchise. The videos are infectious and awesome to watch.
The Lions will join the league along with New York City FC to start the 2015 season.*
*Number 22 might not be that far behind as the unlikely power duo of David Beckham and LeBron James are allegedly in discussions to bring a franchise to Miami.
While I have my doubts about the available talent pool needed to keep expanding (can MLS sustain the need for 720 players in a 24-team league and keep growing in quality?) and concerns about the state of the league's TV ratings (it's depressing, really), it's hard to argue with the league's growth pattern.
The list of expansion team since the league began: Chicago Fire (1998), Real Salt Lake (2005), Chivas USA (2005), Toronto FC (2007), San Jose Earthquakes (2008), Seattle Sounders (2009), Philadelphia Union (2010), Vancouver Whitecaps FC (2011), Portland Timbers (2011) and Montreal (2012).
With the exceptions of Chivas and Toronto, all have been successes on and off the field.
Several have won an MLS Cup (Chicago, Salt Lake, San Jose) or the Supporters' Shields (Chicago, San Jose). Vancouver, Portland and Montreal were all playoff teams this year. San Jose reached the CONCACAF Champions League knockout stages this year.
Perhaps more importantly, the 2013 average attendance table was led by some of these franchises: Seattle (1st, 44,038), Portland (3rd, 20,674), Montreal (4th, 20,603), Vancouver (5th, 20,038), Salt Lake (9th, 19,218) and Toronto (10th, 18,131).*
*Numbers courtesy of the MLS Attendance blog. Kansas City was seventh with 19,709.
Many of the expansion teams are driving the league to new heights. Seattle pushes the attendance envelope as well as the money game with the Clint Dempsey signing. Portland and Salt Lake are pushing the league to more attractive attacking soccer. Montreal and Vancouver have made Canadian soccer respectable.
Major League Soccer in 2013 barely resembles Major League Soccer in 1996. And it's more than just the ugly jerseys and the shootout that have vanished.
If you include the relocation of the San Jose Clash (now the Houston Dynamo) and the re-branding of Sporting Kansas City, New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas, there are just five teams that remain mostly unchanged since 1996: D.C. United, Columbus Crew, New England Revolution, Los Angeles Galaxy and Colorado Rapids.*
*Only New England and Los Angeles, however, have the same owners as they did in 1996.
The majority of the expansion (or relocated or rebranded) franchises have been handed over to smart (typically local) owners with established support (and lots of money). The teams have mostly been in place (in the lower tiers of either NASL or USL) or shared strong connections to Major League Soccer. And all of them had to have a stadium deal in place.
Orlando fits all of those requirements.
Despite its shallow roots (the team relocated to Orlando from Austin in 2010), the team has been on the fast-track to join the league thanks to co-owner Phil Rawlins (part-owner of Stoke City in the English Premier League) and majority owner Flavio Augusto da Silva, a Brazilian businessman. They've been bold and loud for the last year and half.
*How bold and loud? The team has its sights set on brining in Kaka as a designated player.
Orlando City are the reigning USL Pro Champions, having beaten the Charlotte Eagles 7-4 this year in the final. In the three years of the USL Pro division, Orlando have won the championship twice and the regular season Commissioner's Cup twice too.
They've plucked a few scalps too, including beating Sporting Kansas City this year in the Open Cup. Thanks to an affiliation deal between the two teams, several Kansas City players have ties to the franchise: Lawrence Olum and Mechack Jerome were signed to KC from the Lions, while Jon Kempin, Dom Dwyer, Christian Duke and C.J. Sapong spent time in 2013 as part of the two teams' loan agreement.* (Dwyer was the team's and league's leading scorer this year.)
*The ownership groups for both teams have worked together extensively, with the Lions even likely sampling some of Sporting KC's secret stadium sauce.
For 2014, Orlando City will continue to play in USL Pro with the Kansas City affiliation deal still theoretically in place. Then, in 2015, the Lions will begin MLS play at the Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium before moving into a new 18,000-seat soccer stadium in downtown Orlando later that summer.*
*They'll wear all purple, which is a league first. It doesn't fit anywhere in the context of this article, but I feel it needed to be mentioned.
The other 2015 expansion team, New York City FC, doesn't meet some of those criteria. But it has two major things working for it: Money and location. NYCFC will play in downtown New York (the Red Bulls play in Harrison, New Jersey) and the club will be bankrolled by Manchester City (the majority owners) and the New York Yankees (minority owners).
Those are factors that simply can't be ignored. If one of the world's richest men wants to invest in the $100 million expansion fee, would you be able to say no? Probably not.
We're not stopping at 21 teams either. Commissioner Don Garber said this summer the goals as 24 teams in 2020.
If the league keeps up this pace (by 2015, it will be 11 teams added in 11 years), we'll be at 28 by then.