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Thursday, August 1, 2013

Is 24 teams too much for MLS?

Photo credit: MLS
Yesterday American soccer fans received an interesting bit of information about the future of the game in this country: Major League Soccer was looking to add 4 more teams to the league by the year 2020. Is this a good idea?

Let's think back to the year 1981. The league in which Pele and Beckenbaur played expanded to 24 teams in 1979. After 3 years with an expanded field of teams at 24, the North American Soccer League (NASL) contracted to 21 teams, then 14, 12 and finally to 9 in 1984. After that, the league folded and pieces of soccer were played in smaller venues with very little attention by most of the population.

The reason NASL failed was mostly due to the superclub Cosmos earning most of the attendance and poor planning in the expansion to new venues that weren't carefully analyzed for potential followers of the sport, a lack of the necessary funds, stadiums and coverage. Very few teams made it on the air and Americans lost interest in what was always considered a fringe sport.

Is all of this true today? No. But all the pieces aren't there yet either. Early in the 2000s, both teams in Florida (Tampa and Miami) folded and the league remained at 10 teams until the entrance of Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA in 2005. To this day, teams like Columbus, New England, Chivas and Dallas trail the league in attendance and attention, even when they are playing well. And even though some may argue for better management, these clubs should show more progress off the pitch in order to warrant an increase in the number of teams in the league.

There are success stories for sure. Kansas City has seen a tremendous resurgence with new leadership, a new stadium and great player development. Houston's BBVA stadium also allowed for the team to continue with its strong attendance numbers. Then there is Cascadia with Seattle and Portland's sellout crowds for every game. Soccer never left those cities and is here to stay for the long term.

Television coverage is also at an all-time high with the addition of NBC Sports Network and continuing coverage from ESPN and Univision. It is still rare, however, to see matches in non-cable networks like other sports enjoy, although national team coverage has grown through FOX and NBC. This, perhaps, is the next big thing the league has to do. Right now, realistically, this is not financially suitable for most networks due to the reach and requirement of other competing sports. 

If teams such as Orlando and markets like Miami or Baltimore are able to get enough ground support then this could work out, especially if soccer specific stadiums are added. This, most of all, is the key economic component, for rental of bigger football or baseball stadiums drain capital from ownership.

There is also a question of players. Can the US produce good, quality individuals? It can but with a good reserve league and a full suite of academies at all levels for all teams. College soccer can only do so much. Foreign stars are also difficult to acquire in their prime while the league fails at international tournaments and most stars want to be in New York or LA, something akin to what occurred with the NASL. These are cosmetic, societal problems to deal with that make an addition of 24 teams more complicated.

Ultimately, if the concerns above can be addressed properly and in a timely manner, increasing the field of teams to 24 could work to enhance the sport in America and also to increase player quality and perhaps propel the national team to greater heights. Truthfully, the best course of action would be to enact a promotion/relegation procedure to the league, but this remains economically unfeasible for at least a couple of decades.

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