The MLS returned to Florida on Tuesday with the announcement that the 21st franchise slot will be awarded to Orlando City of the USL. That’s another spot down on MLS’ quest to 24 teams by 2020. MLS shows no sign of stopping at 24 either, their model seems to be NFL not the typical FIFA league. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong. The NFL is the most successful league in the U.S. and one of the most succesful in the world. The MLS is an American league, why wouldn’t MLS try to emulate the NFL? MLS commissioner Don Garber has NFL roots, so obviously he has been heavily influenced by the NFL business model.
I believe the ultimate goal of the league is to get to 30-32 teams like the other top sports leagues in America. The question remains, if MLS keeps expanding in these soccer “hot bed” (sorry for using that term) cities, where will the outcries come from for the league to implement promotion/relegation?
The best argument for having pro/rel in the U.S. will come from strong, well supported 2nd division sides. If MLS keeps picking off these successful lower division sides (Montreal, Orlando, possibly Indy or San Antonio) or creating their own teams in cities with established support (Miami area, New York, Atlanta), will the majority of soccer fans even care about pro/rel anymore?
Imagine that MLS is capped at 24 teams, Indy Eleven faces San Antonio in the 2021 Soccer Bowl in front of a sold out SSS with 15,000 fans. You could see a lot of people saying, ‘wow, promotion can work with these teams.’ Instead, what would probably happen is MLS would just gobble these teams up for #25 and #26. Leaving the NASL weaker and having to start all over again in searching for a strong franchise to replace the departing teams.
Say that 32 teams are the end game for the MLS, they expand to Miami, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, San Antonio, Carolina (I can see either Rail Hawks or Battery eventually getting in), Oklahoma City, St. Louis, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Austin. What city them leads the charge for pro/rel? Do the Cosmos have to act by themselves? Do Rochester, Baltimore, Ottawa and Nashville make enough noise? Would MLS even care? They would essentially have every major market sewn up and all the powerful lower division clubs (minus maybe the Cosmos) would be just absorbed into the league as an expansion team.
I think in order to pro/rel to ever work, MLS needs to be done expanding at 24. This allows the lower divisions to become focused and strengthen their respective leagues. With a well-run 2nd and 3rd tier with great teams, the argument for pro/rel would no longer produce eye rolls.
If NASL keeps their successful teams, the league gets more fans, coverage, better T.V. deals which in turn attracts more quality players and gets SSS deals done. This would perhaps make relegation for an MLS side not a death sentence and would make the leap for an NASL club to MLS not too big. But if MLS continues to siphon these teams, the lower tiers are never able to improve, forced to continually build up new fan bases.
Maybe I’m wrong. America is a big country, maybe even if all those cities listed above become MLS expansion teams, other cities will rise up and create great support for their teams and still force pro/rel. However, with each new expansion team in MLS, I can’t help but see the light of pro/rel getting dimmer and dimmer.