After New York City FC was announced, Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber said the league planned on taking a break from expansion. However long that break lasts, the league now plans on expanding by 20 percent by the beginning of the next decade, with 24 the new magic number the commissioner provided at half-time of Wednesday’s All-Star Game.
In what’s become an annual event, Garber spoke to ESPN at halftime of tonight’s game, this time answer questions from analysts and former U.S. Men’s National Team standouts Alexi Lalas and Kasey Keller. There Garber spoke of the league’s plan to eclipse the FIFA standard 20-team league six, explaining the league plans to add four new franchises by 2020:
“These expansion clubs have brought new ideas that have contributed to our strategy for growing the league and the addition of new markets has expanded our geographic reach while increasing our fan base …”
“The strength, passion and vision of the MLS ownership group is the foundation behind the success of our league … We look forward to adding new partners with the same commitment to the sport and love of the game.
“As MLS enters a period of accelerated growth, the addition of new teams will allow us to expand our geographic coverage, grow our fan base and help us achieve our vision of being among the best leagues in the world by 2022.”
That geographic coverage will almost surely address one of the league’s current deficits: a lack of teams in the southeast. Orlando has made a major push of be the league’s next expansion destination, with the Orlando City Soccer Club group headed by Phil Rawlins hoping to play as early as 2015. A potential return to Miami has also been speculated, with former LA Galaxy star David Beckham’s name linked with a possible successor to the defunct Miami Fusion.
While the biggest message for fans in potential expansion markets will be the potential for MLS soccer in their home town, the broader implication from Garber’s Wednesday comments concerns the league’s ambition. Previously content to build to 20 teams, the league has set its sights higher before the 20th team has even taken the field.
Though some will quibble with the idea of a league being allowed to build beyond a 20th team, the U.S. has always been seen as a unique market, both in terms of is size and the challenges soccer has to take root. Announce plans for another stage of “accelerated growth,” Garber is signally not only an intent to grow into that unique market but also leverage the stability the league’s established over the last seven years to grow beyond previous expectations.
So where do we go from here? From MLS’s release:
The process to determine a future MLS expansion market will be selected on the basis of multiple criteria. Factors taken into consideration include:
Committed and engaged ownership;
A comprehensive stadium plan;
Demonstrated fan support for professional soccer in the market;
Support from sponsors, television partners and other constituents;
A strategic business plan for the launch and successful operation of the club.