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For Major League Soccer it isn't just about team 20 (NY2) but beyond

MLS Expansion Map?
MLS Expansion Map?

So last weekend we saw the opening of another Soccer Specific Stadium, this time in Houston and of course Don Garber was in the house for such a big event and Don made some interesting comments again about expansion. I have no doubt that he is still almost single mindedly focused on NY2. Which is an issue of it's own, but this was a chance for him to speak beyond team 20, something that while mentioned in the past has never really been talked about much.

I think a lot of people were hoping that maybe MLS would stop at 20 teams, and put more focus on a real second division (some combination of NASL/USL/??) which may someday in the distant future lead to some type of promotion and relegation within North American soccer. I just don't see a day when that happens in my lifetime, but some out there believe it must be for the sport to grow. Instead the reality is and I believe has been for years that while team 20 will mark a bit of a milestone for MLS, more of a figurative one than an actual. It is just a stepping stone to a larger league.

You can pick up the hints over the years if you listen carefully to MLS leaders talk about how big the US (now more about North America) is, and how all the sports have teams in a large number of cities. It isn't just a possibility that MLS will go beyond 20 teams it is a certainty. So while many of the purists, traditionalists, or "Euro-Snobs" may be offended by going beyond 20 teams it has in reality been the thought of MLS for a long time.

And Don confirmed it last week:

For now, Garber said, the league remains focused on getting something done in the New York market. But in the future, there are hopes for MLS to have a much larger footprint.

"This expansion project is a 20-year process," Garber said. "It's not a two- or three-year process. I can't imagine that 20 years from now we're not in markets like Miami or Minneapolis or [Atlanta]. I think we'll be in most major markets. We have to be. It's a big country. The question is: How long will that take?"

I do believe they have slowed the progress to 20 and beyond to create an artificial demand for NY2, and thus a way to get their $100 million dollar expansion fee (to get their return on the interest of SUM they sold to finance their stadium location and paperwork project). That action has been at the frustration of some other potential markets, like Orlando who would love to have their team be #20.

So how did I know that MLS has had a plan in place to go beyond 20 teams? It is easy, back in 2009 they as much as said so in their pitch to potential sponsors and partners.

The proof and more thoughts after the jump:

So the year the Sounders joined MLS and the Philadelphia Union were announced, MLS was already on their way to a much larger league. You can see back 3 years ago that Portland, Vancouver, and even Montreal were all very much already on the road map to the MLS future. You can also see that the plan for New York 2 isn't anything new, if you followed my conversation on Twitter earlier today, you know that I firmly believe that NY2 isn't a bad thing but that MLS spending time and resources on finding and probably financing a stadium is something I oppose.

If these markets like all the others on the map below want into MLS, shouldn't they get that same help? Now I get that NY is a huge TV market, but the last time (2010 numbers) that Nielsen published a list of the top viewing markets for MLS, New York wasn't even in the top 10. Now some markets that are already supporting MLS by watching it on TV are on this map of potential team locations, St. Louis, Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, and Las Vegas all are in the top 10 markets watching MLS on TV, none of them are getting the advantage of having MLS hire staff to scout potential stadium locations, none of them have MLS spending millions of dollars trying to get a stadium built.

So when you hear the comish talk about Miami, Minneapolis as potential cities, don't think for a minute that he is just blowing smoke at fans and potential owners in those cities. MLS has planned for the longest time to expand beyond 20 teams, the question is to what?

I think we only need to look at the recent development in our 2012 schedule to see the future, while it is clear that MLS believes that rivalries (well other than New York vs. LA) are all geographically based, let's think about potential scenarios and how they might impact what number MLS stops at. 24 is a number a lot of people like, but it seems a bit light to me.

I can see 2 conferences (East & West) with each having 2 divisions of 6 teams, this would allow teams to play each team in their division 3 times (for 15 matches) and each of the other 18 teams once, that would give us 33 matches a year, very close to our current 34. This would allow for a fairly clean playoff system- the 8 teams could advance, but we know MLS wants more teams in the playoffs so I could see them letting the top 12 teams in with the top team in each division getting a bye round and then facing the winner of the #2vs#3 matches.

I don't think 26 works as well unless the league sticks with just conferences and doesn't break things down to lower units, I consider this highly unlikely as they seem to be doing their best to replicate what Don Garber knows best which is the NFL. Still with 26 teams you could have two conferences of 13 teams, this would require that within each conference you face each team twice (home and away) for 24 matches and then it is likely you wouldn't face the full roster of opposing conference teams, as that would lead us to 37 matches a year, so I could see a random mix of 10 matches against the opposing conference. Why not the other sports like the NFL do it. You could then take the top 7 teams from each conference for the playoffs with the top team getting a bye round. This would give us 14 of 26 teams making the post season.

So what about 28 teams? So again I think the league sticks with 2 conferences, each with 14 teams, but now it breaks down into 4 divisions of 7 teams each. So how would it work for scheduling? If you play each team in your division twice that would be 12 matches plus one match against the other 21 teams, and again you are at 33 matches for the regular season, which gives you a bit more time for playoffs. You could end up with 4 teams from each division making the playoffs, that would be 16 teams in the playoffs and I am sure that is something that Don and the networks would like for TV, it would make MLS more like the NBA and NHL where more teams make the playoffs than don't.

I actually think the magic number for Don's 20 year plan is 30, just like the NHL and the NBA. If you look at the map above there are 29 markets indicated on the map, those were cities that 4 years MLS was already looking at, it would be easy to add one more market (Orlando, San Antonio/Austin, Carolina, Phoenix, or ??) to that map. Then you get the two conferences of 15 teams each with 3 divisions of 5 teams each. There are all kinds of ways you can manipulate the scheduling to make it work for you, but this would allow the MLS to be just like the NBA and NHL as far as number of markets they are in.

For me I hope the number is 24, but I don't believe it for a second, I have that gut feeling that the number Don is thinking at the end of his 20 year plan is likely 30. Of course for this to happen a lot of things will need to change, things like the current salary cap, the DP system, national TV deal, and oh so much more. One thing is for sure while we may have little to no idea what Don Garber has in store for MLS, if you think he doesn't have a plan, well then you are just fooling yourself.

So what do you think MLS should do about expansion beyond 20 teams?