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MLS Expansion Plans: Can the league sustain its growth and still expand past 24 teams?

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Garber preaches a message of measured growth when it comes to MLS expansion

Don Garber talks MLS expansion
Don Garber talks MLS expansion
Lyndsay Radnedge | Center Line Soccer

MLS commissioner Don Garber had a very busy week. On Sunday, he was in San Jose to attend the grand opening of the league's 15th soccer specific facility, Avaya Stadium. And in midweek, he was in Minneapolis to announce that Minnesota United FC had been granted an expansion side to debut in 2018. By week's end, Garber was likely back in New York, already planning his next excursion that will take him to Miami in the very near future to meet with David Beckham and others about that city's progress on the expansion front.

The Soccer Don must have quite the frequent flier mileage account from all the traveling he puts in for MLS.

North America is a huge geographical territory in which to host a professional soccer league, and the footprint that MLS has in both the United States and Canada demands a high level of travel stamina for its players and staff. But for all that fertile acreage, primed for the continuing growth of the beautiful game that has been flourishing for the better part of a decade now, MLS is planning to have only 24 teams by the end of the decade. Can the continent support more?

During Garber's visit to Avaya, the commissioner spoke to reporters at halftime -- and well into the second half -- about the growth of soccer in North America and how the league plans to capitalize on the increased appetite for the world's most popular sport as it strives to be counted among the most elite professional soccer leagues.

"We want to expand this league in a way where we can manage a careful growth and go to markets where there is a history of supporting soccer," said Garber, "where we can get the right stadium plan in place, and where we can capture some of the momentum that has been building in the U.S. and Canada for our sport. We've got some wind in our sails, and we feel good about that, but I remind our staff and our board every day, we have not cracked the code."

The code for future MLS expansion does seem a bit tricky -- much more difficult to solve than was the hidden message spelled out by the red seats in the Avaya Stadium supporters section: "GO EQ!" -- and current plans call for the league to grow to 24 teams by the end of the decade. With the already announced expansion sides in Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Minnesota, as well as the promised franchise in Miami, MLS has already reached that stated goal with five years to spare.

"We have geographical needs that are our priority," said Garber, "and it is a priority for us to expand further in the Midwest. We have commitments we've made in Miami, and that remains a priority. It's why we are evaluating whether we should be beyond 24 teams. That process will probably take us the better part of a year, and I think the U.S. and Canada can support more teams than 24, but we've got to go through it in a very careful way, and be smart strategically, which is the way I think we have expanded the league."

MLS currently features 20 teams, a number that the top-flight divisions in European leagues also count, and they span the continent from sea to shining sea. Every U.S. time zone, save for Hawaii, is represented by the 17 domestic based clubs, and the markets they represent range from mighty New York City to sleepy Salt Lake City. For Garber and the league, further expansion is not a debate between big-market and small-market communities; rather, it is a discussion about what makes the most sense geographically to tap into the emerging and existing soccer hotbeds across the nation.

"Every market is important.," said Garber. "Big markets are important, small markets are important. To be successful in a Kansas City really proves that if you can be successful in a small market, you ought to be able to more successful than we have been in some of the larger markets.

"We had a great opening in New York, 43,000 in Yankee Stadium, it was rocking in there. We need to get a stadium developed in that market. The Red Bulls have been doing much better in the last number of years than they had previously. The rivalry between the two is important to us.

"I met with Arthur Blank and the folks in Atlanta, another large market that we are in, in our offices just two days ago. They have 19,000 season ticket deposits, and that is pretty remarkable. The best thing I can say is that we need to be great everywhere."

Such greatness won't happen overnight, and it certainly won't be as a result of the league collecting big expansion fees from any and all markets that suddenly want to be a part of the Next Big (Sporting) Thing. Such misguided thinking by the 1970s-era NASL ultimately led to that league's downfall early in the next decade, and MLS has always been hypersensitive to comparisons made between it and the failed NASL.

Garber, and the current MLS ownership that serves as his boss, could be forgiven if he were to chase the $100 million pots-of-gold that have appeared in at ends of rainbows in expansion seeking communities such as Sacramento, San Antonio, St. Louis, and Detroit. For a league that during recent CBA negotiations with its player union cried poor, claiming it was still running at a deficit, those enticing franchise fees must certainly look tempting.

Instead, the commissioner is preaching a message of measured growth, one methodically laid out such that it sets a foundation for the sport that will be as long-lasting as that of any of the other Big Four professional sports in the U.S. and Canada. The NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA, and the NHL have thrived for many decades. MLS is a relative youngster among the group of established entities.

"We are still only 20 years old," said Garber, "so there's a lot of work we still need to do to be as big as we want to be and ultimately be competitive with the other leagues around the world. Now, that's going to require more passionate fans, higher television ratings, a deeper investment in our player pool, and bigger and better facilities. We are going to stay focused on that plan."

Part of that plan to increase the league's visibility on television, and to that goal MLS signed the biggest broadcasting agreement deal in its history last year. Regular season games can now be found weekly on Friday evenings and Sunday afternoons -- such destination programming was called a number one priority for MLS by Garber. TV ratings are already showing modest improvement over seasons past, but there is still a long way to go to generate buzz within the general sporting audience.

So wouldn't more markets with MLS teams help push the numbers upward? Perhaps it is more of a chicken or the egg question -- does TV growth beget expansion or vice versa -- that MLS must grapple with; however, those communities that are well on their way to being built for MLS are left waiting.

Not 100 miles away from Avaya Stadium is Sacramento, home to the Republic FC in the current third division of U.S. professional soccer, the USL. A league champion in 2014, their first season as a franchise, the Republic saw itself as a worthy candidate for the coveted 24th expansion spot in MLS. Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, the former NBA star and huge proponent for his city's growth, has been a staunch supporter of the club's campaign to join MLS. He pushed for a stadium plan near downtown and helped the Republic sign on big-time investors with ties to the Sacramento Kings and San Francisco 49ers. The bid from California's capital city seemed to have checked all the boxes demanded by MLS.

But Garber flew to Minneapolis this week and celebrated the expansion announcement of Minnesota United FC as team number 24. Garber also reiterated that Beckham's Miami dream was still in play, despite the lack of good news from South Florida in the more than twelve months since the original expansion announcement there. Sacramento -- and by extension San Antonio, St. Louis, and others -- was on the outside looking in.

"Kevin Johnson and the folks at the Republic have done a lot of things right," said Garber. "They've created close relationships with the MLS board, and they've put a good public-private partnership together."

So might MLS reconsider its current expansion plans -- 24 teams by 2020 -- and make room for a few more viable candidates before the end of the decade?

"That's a fair question, but it's one that I can't put a timetable on," said Garber. "I speak to Mayor Johnson regularly. He's a terrific advocate for his city and loves our league and wants it to be a part of their development in the Railyards.

"But we have to manage this with our timing, and stay focused to ensure that we don't make the mistakes of the past. Our country is different, our sport is different than it was in the old NASL days, but we still have to be careful about how we go about growing the league and not think, again, the we have cracked the code."

Perhaps Miami will falter in its bid to launch a franchise -- Garber said his priority would be to help Beckham and company gain focus on their plans for a stadium to host the nascent club -- and open the door for a turn-key expansion candidate like Sacramento. Perhaps MLS will in the next year reconsider its plans and initiate another round of expansion before the end of the decade -- 27 total teams split into three 9-team conferences could work very well.

Whatever happens, the future looks bright for MLS as it starts off its 20th season. The downtrodden league from the turn of the century, one that was the butt of jokes and proverbially stuffed in its locker by a bullying sporting public, has survived its awkward years and is now one of the cool kids on campus. And everyone with a soccer dream and an eye looking forward wants to be its best friend.