The continued expansion of MLS is something to celebrate, rather than begrudge. However, like anything in life, there is a healthy limit.
This season, Major League Soccer will celebrate 25 years of competitive play. In that period, the league has changed and adapted greatly and is almost unrecognisable from the competition that began in 1996.
In a country dominated by the NFL, NBA and the MBL, where the average soccer fan has preferred to look overseas for their fix of the sport rather than in their own home-towns and cities, the continued growth of MLS is something to be proud of.
The league is now at 26 teams, which is a whole lot better and more competitive than even 10 years ago when there were 16 teams kicking off the 2010 season. Next season, MLS will feature an additional two teams sides, bringing the total up to a massive 28 clubs playing in America’s top division. Fantastic, right?
Well, yes and now. With every negative comes a positive, and unfortunately vice-versa. Consider it the Ying and Yang effect. MLS already features the most teams of any top-flight league in the world. It has six teams more than both the English Premier League and Spanish La Liga for reference.
Comparatively, the NBA has 30 franchises, 15 in the East, 15 in the West. It wouldn’t harm MLS to match that layout. Add another four teams to the picture, balance out the conferences but also consider implementing a relegation and promotion process to both divisions. This helps with the continuity of competitiveness, while also enhancing the overall quality of soccer in the country.
There has been a running argument in the past couple of years that MLS is beginning to border on too many clubs, therefore becoming a bit over the top or messy in some senses. I understand this point of view, but let me put some perspective forward.
It is estimated that approximately 700 million people live in mainland Europe. The USA has over 300 million citizens. The USA and Canada combined have a larger land size. It is not an entirely accurate comparison, but consider the idea of somewhere between 15 to 26 teams playing across the whole of Europe. Sounds utterly ridiculous, right?
Forget the different leagues, forget the idea of separate countries. Fixate on the notion of a season-long UEFA Champions League which starts with just ’20 something’ teams rather than the 34 clubs it currently begins with. Not so thrilling or prestigious to win now, is it? That’s MLS without its continued growth.
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The argument is, if you were to go back in time to the late 1800s and restart soccer as a continent-wide league, you’d probably change the structure of European Football. Instead of having multiple teams from the same city, maybe you’d have a club per major city or region, to help keep it diverse, wide-reaching, entertaining and full of inter-city rivalries.
Well, that’s what MLS is creating. The league is building in a population of roughly five times the size of the United Kingdom, essentially starting from scratch rather than continuing on 170 years of association soccer history. Being able to create the best version of soccer for the nation takes times, and massive, rapid expansion.
Both the USA and Canada have most of their major cities represented. In some cities, there are at least two active clubs. But in England, several smaller cities have two teams. Sheffield has a population of around 500,000. Liverpool is even smaller. So are Bristol and Nottingham, and yet all these cities boast two major clubs. There is room for continued expansion, then, and it will only see more coverage and involvement around the States. There is no negative angle, other than where to draw the line.
There is a limit, of course. Get near 40 teams and it becomes too much. The talent pool available lessens. The quality of soccer dies on the hill it was trying to create. The season is full of games where starting XI’s are rotated at dizzying levels to keep up with playing almost 80 games before even smelling the play-offs or cup soccer. And this is all intensified by the fact that soccer is not the major sport in North America like it is in England.
Nevertheless, there is still much more room for growth than many may realise. Expansion is a positive thing for North American soccer, both in MLS, the lower leagues, and on the international stage.