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Where will expansion take MLS? A look at logistics and options for 28-team league

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MLS expansion is happening fast and furious — so what’s next for the 20-year-old league?

MLS: LAFC-Press Conference Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

With two new teams (numbers 25 and 26) to be announced by the Fall of 2017 and two more (numbers 27 and 28) guaranteed to follow, let’s take a look into our crystal ball at how things may change and how they may remain the same.

My Basic Assumptions

First, for purposes of convenience, let’s agree to three fundamental assumptions.

  • LA Football Club and Miami will be teams #23 and #24. LA Football Club is a sure thing and I still believe that Miami will manage to work things out with regard to a stadium.
  • Once MLS grows beyond 24 teams the current East and West two conference setup with home and away matches with each team in your conference and one match with teams in the other conference will need to change. With 26 teams and 13 in each conference, that would amount to 24 games of home and away in your conference and another 13 against the other conference for 37 matches. I do not believe that league will be able to get agreement to move beyond a 34 match season and or that it is ready to move away from at least a single yearly match between all the sides in the league for media reasons.
  • MLS will move to a 4 conference/division configuration. While MLS could move to 3 conferences or divisions, I believe that 4 is much more likely. I have no doubt that MLS will attempt to expand beyond 28 teams and moving to 4 conferences or divisions is just much more accommodating for future expansion and scheduling.

A 28 team 4 division MLS alignment

Second, let’s take a look at how a four division setup might be organized. In my mind, two of the divisions, let’s call them Pacific and Atlantic, are pretty much a natural fit.

Pacific Division - Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Jose, LA Galaxy, and LA FC (with one open spot in a 28 team league)

Atlantic Division - Toronto, Montreal, New England, NYCFC, NY Red Bulls, Philadelphia, and Washington DC (with no open spots in a 28 team league)

The other two are a bit trickier. Minnesota has been placed in the Western Conference to balance Atlanta, but with Chicago being their natural rival I would have them move to a central division as soon as possible. Columbus could argue to be with Toronto, but as a small market and the natural fit of the other seven teams with Toronto I would have them stay with the central teams. The lack of teams in the plains states leaves it difficult to come up a full seven which is why I would leave the plains division with two open spots. That leaves us with these two additional conferences.

Plains Division - RSL, Colorado, Kansas City, Houston, and FC Dallas (with two open spots in a 28 team league)

Central Division - Columbus, Chicago, Minnesota, Atlanta, Orlando, and Miami (with one open spot in 28 team league)

So, in short, the four new teams we are looking at will be one that fits well in the Pacific Division, one that fits well in the Central Division, and two that can be shoehorned into the Plains Division.

The following chart summarizes each of the 12 expansion markets in six different areas.

  1. How close is the nearest MLS team
  2. Is the bid associated with an existing USL or NASL team in that market
  3. Does the market have an active functioning academy setup
  4. What is the market’s media DMA rating
  5. What is the status of a MLS size SSE (Soccer Specific Stadium) in the market
  6. How many Fortune 500 companies are based in the market.

MLS Expansion Markets.csv

Expansion Market Nearest MLS Team Division 2 team basis Academy Media DMA Stadium Fortune 500
Expansion Market Nearest MLS Team Division 2 team basis Academy Media DMA Stadium Fortune 500
Charlotte 250 Miles (Atlanta) None No 22 No current plan 7
Nashville 250 miles (Atlanta) None No 29 No current plan 6
Indianapolis 175 Miles (Coumbus) NASL No 27 Looking for location 7
Detroit 320 Miles (Columbus) None No 13 Looking for location 12
Phoenix 370 Miles (Los Angeles) USL Starting 2017 12 Finalizing location 5
St. Louis 250 miles (Kansas City) None No 21 Seeking public money 9
Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill 280 Miles (Washington DC) NASL No 24 Looking for location 0
San Antonio 200 Miles (Houston USL U-12 up 31 Upgrades to existing stadium 6
Sacramento 120 Miles (San Jose) USL U-12 up 20 Ready to break ground 0
Cincinnati 120 Miles (Columbus) USL No 36 Looking for location 10
Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg 100 Miles (Orlando) USL No 11 Upgrades to existing stadium 4
San Diego 120 Miles (Los Angeles) None No 28 Finalizing site 3

Pacific Division candidates

Among the twelve expansion markets there are two natural fits, Sacramento and San Diego.

Recent handbag events in the media aside, Sacramento has the much more advanced bid. The Railyards stadium plan is through all approvals and basically ready to break ground. The USL Sacramento Republic have a good sponsorship base and have great attendance figures even without any Fortune 500 companies based in the area. They are also a healthy 20 in the media DMA rankings.

San Diego is a good market with a high hispanic population, but a smaller media market than Sacramento and they are still basically starting from scratch.

I give Sacramento the nod, but only have them come in as either #27 or #28.

Plains Division candidates

There are really only three possible candidates for the two openings in the Plains Division, Phoenix, San Antonio, and St. Louis.

San Antonio has to have the nod here, for their ownership group, if no other reason. The San Antonio bid is being made by the group which owns and operates the San Antonio Spurs, one of the most successful sports franchises in the United States. In addition, although it is a public stadium, Toyota Field is in place and plans for expansion to MLS standards are in place. The USL San Antonio FC have played only a single season, but were very successful and have an established and funded academy system. What San Antonio is only 31 in media DMA that is still larger that three existant MLS sides and if Austin is factored in it moves comfortably into mid-range among MLS sides. Make them one of the favorites to hear their name called out when #25 and #26 are announced later this year.

Phoenix is the second largest media DMA still outside of MLS. While soccer has languished in the Valley of the Sun, new well financed ownership has taken control of the USL Phoenix Rising side and have large plans. They are opening an academy this year and have acquired land for the academy and a new privately funded stadium convenient to much of the metro area. MLS will be going here soon, but I think that they will need some time to cement the new ownership and implement their plans. Make them the second choice for the Plains Division and either #26 or #28.

St Louis still has major stadium issues and the lack of a stable experience ownership team. Sometime, but not in these two rounds.

Central Division candidates

The remaining seven expansion markets are all best suited for the Central Division and in the running for a single spot: Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg, Cincinnati, Charlotte, Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill, Detroit, Nashville, and Indianapolis.

My favorite here in Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg. Although a former baseball stadium, Al Lang has already undergone several incremental modifications to convert it for soccer and has well established plans to bring it up to MLS standards. The ownership group is well established in the community and successful. Last but not least, it is the largest media DMA (#11) not yet in MLS. Look for them to get the nod later this year as either #25 or #26. The Mutiny will return to blind us once again, if in spirit only.

Cincinnati is a very well organized bid and probably my second choice. The USL team there launched to great success last year and looks to build into the future. Look for them to solidify a stadium plan and enter early in a future wave of expansion, especially as the league considers a change beyond 4 to 6 or more divisions.

Indianapolis and Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill are handicapped by their association with NASL sides and the past enmity that goes with that relationship. Look for them to continue to work on mending fences, especially the Carolina bid and solidify their bids as the situation with the NASL works itself out.

Charlotte, Detroit and Nashville are still very early in the process and have no soccer infrastructure. Give them time to mature and build a base to work from.

Summary

Here are my picks, what would yours be?

#25 - San Antonio

#26 - Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg

#27 - Sacramento

#28 - Phoenix