Can 30 teams thrive as MLS expands?
Ten years ago this spring, MLS announced expansion to Portland. When the Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps joined the league in 2011, it had 18 teams.
Commissioner Don Garber announced last week the league will expand from 24 to 30, with Nashville and (perhaps) Miami expected to begin play in 2020.
Next in line comes Austin, Texas, in 2021.
The 28th and 29th teams — for an expansion fee of $200 million each that doesn't include the league's requirement that a club have a soccer-specific stadium in a thriving urban center — are expected to be announced this year.
St. Louis, with a rich soccer history, and Sacramento, with a thriving United Soccer League team, are front-runners.
As for how much MLS might charge for franchise 30, it's a safe bet it will be even more. Phoenix, San Diego, Indianapolis, Tampa/St. Petersburg, two North Carolina markets and Detroit are seen as as potential MLS locales.
This for a league that had only 12 teams as recently as 2006.
Portland and Seattle were trendsetters. Seattle's record-setting attendance upon entering the league in 2009 provided the opening for Portland's bid, and Portland's downtown stadium environment provided a blueprint for MLS growth.
The rapid growth (and those expansion fees) is stunning. It's a pace far quicker than any league in history.
Thirty teams seems like a lot.
The NFL has 32 teams. MLB 30. The NBA 30. Seattle will be the 32nd NHL club. But, with the exception of mergers in the NFL and NBA, those organizations grew at a modest pace. Expansion in those established leagues has mostly been driven by population trends, specifically the growth of Southern markets.
The question is whether the quality of play can continue to improve as MLS balloons. So far, the investment of funds in salaries has improved the level of play somewhat. But MLS still falls well behind the top leagues in the world in terms of quality.
No shame in that. To expect a league with a quarter-century of history to compete with those that have a century of tradition is silly.
But if the quality is driven by expansion funds, it's fair to question the long-range chance of 30 or more teams thriving.
Attendance at Portland's game in Columbus last Saturday was announced at 11,707, but it looked like there were more empty seats than filled chairs. Original MLS clubs FC Dallas, Colorado (albiet with a lousy team) and the New York Red Bulls (along with New York City FC) are struggling for relevance in their markets.
This is not to say that expansion is the wrong tack, or that it won't work. When I become a billionaire (any day now, given the way journalism is thriving), perhaps MLS will be a good place to park a few dollars.
But with 30 teams, a higher percentage of clubs inevitably will struggle to be competitive. In a sport with a century of history, such as baseball, that's fine.
But those new owners and new fans will look at the quick success enjoyed in Seattle, Portland and (more recently) Atlanta United and LAFC and expect similar fun. And if established clubs in places like Boston, New York and Denver continue to be an afterthought in their competitive markets, how can MLS sell itself as a smart investment for TV networks?
It will be fascinating to watch how MLS meets those challenges.
• Seattle's visit to LAFC last Sunday was billed as a showdown between perhaps the best two teams in MLS. It was a one-sided show, as LAFC beat Seattle 4-1 and continues to look like the 2019 version of Atlanta United 2018. Carlos Vela scored twice and has 10 goals and five assists through nine games, but it was the interplay between LAFC's midfielders and forwards that separated the teams.
It was the first loss this season for the Sounders. They get a second shot at LAFC this Sunday in Seattle (after a Wednesday match against San Jose) and hope to have striker Raul Ruidiaz and defender Chad Marshall back on the field.
• T2 will play the most meaningful match in the USL Championship this week. First-place Portland visits second-place New Mexico United on Saturday.
A 4-1-2, T2 is establishing a habit of fighting from behind for results — as they did twice in last Saturday's 2-2 draw with Colorado Springs.
Now, if they can just get the penalty kick thing down, look out. T2 have been awarded seven PKs this season — and converted only two.
• The Sounders' youth academy became the first MLS team to win the Champions Division of the Generation Adidas Cup, a MLS-run tournament that brings U-17 teams from top clubs around the world to play against MLS academy teams.
Seattle's 1-0 win over Valencia CF of Spain in Saturday's championship match marked only the second time since this format began in 2014 that an MLS team reached the final.
Portland's U-17 team played in the second division of the Generation Adidas tournament — a positive step for the organization. It was the first time a Timbers Academy team had qualified. Playing in the Premier Division, the Timbers U17 went 3-3, including a 1-0 loss to Premier Division champions Tijuana.