There are many things fans might not like regarding the MLS. The fact that there is no promotion-relegation system might create a stir on some of the “traditional” football fans, who believe one team should be punished from having a poor season, while the ones from the lower categories should be rewarded for their success. The lack of importance given to the playoffs – the stage where the trophy is ACTUALLY decided – could become a cause of concern, too.
However, there is one particular thing that is becoming quite disturbing regarding the MLS. And that’s none other than their expansion system. At first it seemed nice to add more teams, but right now the league has gotten crazy. And there are no signs of it stopping any time soon.
How did the expansion process came to life?
To get a better understanding of this phenomenon, we need to have clarity on how the league started. Its first season came in 1996 and there were only 10 teams. However, it quickly expanded to 12 on 1998. Things remained the same until 2001… and that’s where the chaos began to unfold.
From 2002 to 2004, it was 10 teams again, but it reverted to 12 on 2005 and 2006. But the league progressively added one team each year until 2012, going from 12 in 2006, to 19 in 2012. The list goes like this: Toronto in 2007, San Jose in 2008, Seattle in 2009, Philadelphia in 2010, Vancouver and Portland in 2011, and Montreal in 2012. One would think they would have stopped there… but no.
Chivas USA disappeared from the league in 2014, but New York City FC and Orlando City SC entered the fray in 2015 to make it 20 teams. Matched with top leagues such as the Italian Serie A, the English Premier League and the French Ligue 1 didn’t seem to be a bad idea… but the MLS wanted more.
Atlanta United – the reigning champions, no less – and Minnesota United debuted in 2017. Los Angeles FC did the same thing in 2018, and FC Cincinnati will have their debut season in the upcoming 2019 campaign. But Miami Fusion – owned by David Beckham – will enter league play in 2020. And both Nashville SC – expected name, not an official one – and Austin FC will also debut in 2021 and 2022, respectively. In case you’re not keeping the score, don’t worry; we are. The total is currently up at 24 teams, but it will be 27 by 2022. And commissioner Don Garber has said the league has set its mind in expanding up to 28 teams. Therefore, we can expect ANOTHER team to debut on 2023.
Chaos unfolded! What’s next for MLS?
“It’s not a matter of ‘if’, but ‘when’”, Garber said. So, then it’s fair to ask. When will the madness stop? No professional football league in the world has 28 teams in its top-flight and while if there’s one country that could do it that’s the United States, they’re basically following the model of their other leagues such as the NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB. None of these leagues have less than 30 teams, and all of them are in constant expansion talks.
Apparently, that “expansion” talk will end on 2023… at least for a few years. But it needs to stop soon. Otherwise, the MLS will continue getting mocked in other places, and other players will continue looking at it as a “retirement destination” rather than a competitive environment. That label has disappeared a bit in the past few years, but this unique set of rules does not help.
For what is worth, there has been talks of establishing a potential promotion-relegation system with the USL, USA’s second-tier league. But the owners have blocked any potential advancement on those discussions. Needless to say, this has the same feel of the 90s. In those days, the MLS had the clock backwards, avoided draws, didn’t give points for wins, and established the “shoot-out” as the preferred method to solve tied games. In other words, it still feels as if the MLS wants to continue being original in a context where all leagues are aligned by the same standards.
It’s time the league puts an end to this nonsense. This process should begin with the MLS behaving like a professional football league judged by the FIFA standards. Otherwise, their position among top footballers and clubs will never change. And that’s bad publicity for a league that remains “keen to position themselves as a top football (soccer, as they call it) league by 2030”. For instance, if they have 28 teams, then they could easily create a first and second division, isolated from the USL, with 14 teams each. This would be a decent amount, and it would allow for a decent promotion-relegation system. But that’s just an idea.
Clearly, they are doing something wrong. And they need to stop it before it is too late.
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