Just last summer, during the MLS All-Star Game at Sporting Park, Don Garber made a seemingly-radical proclamation: Major League Soccer would have 24 teams by the end of the decade.
At the time, that seemed like an ambitious, crazy and ambitiously crazy statement. The league was 19 teams strong, attendance was up and, while still concerning, TV numbers weren't the flaming tire fire they had once been. It seemed like slow and steady expansion to smart soccer markets had bolstered the league's bottom line, image and on-field product.
Apparently, slow and steady isn't really the plan anymore. From 2004 to 2012, the league added nine new franchises. In the last nine months: Four.
New York City FC (bankrolled by Manchester City and the New York Yankees) and Orlando City (the reigning USL Pro champs and a Sporting KC affiliate) were introduced to the league before 2013 ended. Both will be on board for the 2015 season. Those were teams #20 and #21.
Then, earlier this year, the league entered into an agreement with David Beckham (and company) to award an MLS franchise to Miami, pending a stadium deal. A deal has yet to be reached and the timeline for Miami's franchise joining the league is a few years out.
On Wednesday, Garber and Atlanta Falcons owner (and Home Depot mogul) Arthur Blank announced thatAtlanta would join the league in 2017
. Since Atlanta will join the league before Miami, it technically gets to be franchise #22; Miami if/when it happens will be #23.
By the way, with three teams in the Eastern time zone joining the league over the next three years (and Miami would be the fourth)conference realignment is imminent
. The thought of Houston and Kansas City — the two western-most Eastern Conference teams — moving to the loaded West is a bit exciting. And kind of terrifying.
It's interesting to see a league that had been so considered and careful with its expansion over the last decade — adding teams in soccer hungry markets like Portland, Montreal and Seattle with local ownership groups and stadium plans firmly in place — add franchises at such a frenetic pace. Especially franchises with a few legitimate concerns.
Like Orlando City, Beckham's Miami deal is dependent on getting approval to build a new stadium.There are pretty concepts , but no concrete deals yet. There are some detractors too, as Royal Caribbean leads "an alliance" against Beckham's Port Miami plan.
Atlanta has a stadium deal — a $1.2 billion (with b) retractable roof stadium in downtown Atlanta — but there arequestions about Atlanta's soccer fickle sports fans and NFL-first owner . (Is this just an MLS 2.0 version of Robert Kraft and the New England Revolution?
The smart money is on "no." But, we just don't know yet.)
While there are certainly some doubts about Atlanta's ability to sustain a soccer team — after all, its NHL expansion team lasted only a decade before relocating a few years ago — the stadium is at least designed to display a soccer match.* Unlike the rumored NYCFC plan, which could see the teamplaying in Yankee Stadium for up to three years
.***The 71,000-seat venue will hold a fairly-robust 29,000 fans for MLS action according to Blank. While the facilities will be shared between the Falcons and the as-of-yet unnamed team, Blank made a few fans in the soccer community happy by announcing: "There will never be an MLS game in Atlanta where NFL lines are shown on the field." Someone be sure to store this away for three or four years from now when an MLS playoff game and an Atlanta Falcons game are scheduled for the same weekend. **Because sharing a stadium with an iconic American franchise that happens to play the exact same months of the year and has somewhat different grass needs certainly won't be contentious. Also, soccer sharing time with a baseball park is so 2009.
This isn't to say that any of the new franchises are a mistake because they don't fit the expansion criteria we've come to accept.
As Brian Strauss points out at SI.com, there isn't really aone-size-fits-all criteria to expansion
.* There are established teams with more questions than some of these new franchises (cough Chivas cough). As long as the league retains committed owners, those obstacles can be overcome.*Seriously, read that whole article. It's good.
The money isn't bad either. Adding a few deep-pocketed owners to the league will definitely help a league that's now in the market ofbuying expensive players.
The fight for #24 figures to be a very heated contest.
Minneapolis is reportedly on the league's "short list" for a franchise. The commissioner and the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal went so far as toname-check Sporting KC when discussing Minnesota United FC's ownership group. (The Wilf family, owners of the Minnesota Vikings, are also "stepping up" interest
and Oklahoma City Energy FC joined the USL Pro this season and both have ambitions to replicate Orlando City's jump from the third tier to the first. The San Antonio Scorpions (currently in the second-tier NASL) have been mentioned a lot in expansion circles. Phoenix, Detroit and Indianapolis are all markets that have lower-division teams with potential.
St. Louis, which doesn't have a professional soccer team at the moment, is often bandied about and was onthe league's own expansion candidate map back in 2013
. (Also: Kansas City fans seems to like the idea of an soccer-specific I-70 rivalry.)
So, here were are in April. Still six years away from the end of the decade (just nine months removed from Garber's grand reveal) and there's really just one spot left to reach Garber's dream of 24 teams.
At the rate the league is going, Garber might see his dreams come true before this summer is over.