As the confetti filled the air inside the Knight Concert Hall at the Adrienne Arsht Center, David Beckham flashed a smile that spoke volumes about the celebratory atmosphere on stage and in the crowd: MLS was coming to Miami. Nearly four years after first making it public that he would bring a team to South Florida, the former LA Galaxy superstar finally would be an MLS owner after all.
Beckham, back in 2007, when he agreed to leave Real Madrid and move to the United States, had shrewdly negotiated for the future rights to purchase an expansion team in the then fledgling, but growing, league. Commissioner Don Garber, then and now, reflexively said yes to the global soccer icon’s demands, knowing that having Beckham as part of MLS for the long haul — first as a player and then as an owner — would certainly pay dividends for everyone invested in the league.
The arrival of Beckham to Los Angeles that summer attracted international attention. When the San Jose Earthquakes returned to MLS to start the 2008 season, it was Beckham’s Galaxy side that were their first opponents. Later that spring, and again that summer, the renewal of the California Clasico in the Bay Area saw the Quakes attract their two biggest crowds of the season. Beckhamania was alive and well then, and 11 years later, it has returned to these shores.
Garber indicated that Miami would begin play in 2020, the same season that Nashville, awarded an MLS expansion franchise back in December, is expected to join the league. With the addition of Los Angeles FC this year, growing the league to 23 teams, Miami and Nashville take that number to 25. MLS has promised to name another expansion side some time this year — Cincinnati and Sacramento are the two cities battling to be that team — with reports surfacing that team #26 could begin play in 2019, ahead of both Nashville and Miami.
To put the growth of MLS in perspective, back in 2007, when the new Earthquakes returned after the first iteration had been moved to Houston in 2005 and renamed the Dynamo, the league featured half as many clubs — 13 total — as it now will by the end of this decade: A 100% increase in the number of teams, and an annual addition rate of one team per year.
So what does the addition of Miami — a club that now embarks on a two year journey to create an identity and grab the attention of soccer lovers in South Florida, North America, and abroad — and Nashville mean for the San Jose Earthquakes, besides a couple of possibly enticing away trips on the 2020 MLS regular season schedule? The answer will, no doubt, be better defined in these upcoming couple of years, but there will likely be one clear result: a new-look conference alignment.
Without even knowing which city will ante up for the 26th MLS franchise, a league of such a size could function with two conferences of 13 teams each, East and West, much like it does today. Or perhaps it will be split geographically into three, possibly four, regional divisions to foster more “local” rivalries. The big soccer leagues around the world have stuck to a traditional single-table system, one in which everyone plays everyone else home and away, crowning the team at the top at season’s end as champions. In North America, where sports leagues favor a playoff system to determine their champions, split conferences and unbalanced schedules are the norm. And MLS, in its short history, is no different.
Entering the 2018 season, one in which the league features 23 teams, the Western Conference will play with 12 sides and the Eastern Conference with 11. Champions from each conference, as decided in the postseason, will face off for the MLS Cup to cap off the calendar year. Sure, there will still be a Supporters’ Shield winner — a distinction earned by the team that collects the most points over the 34-game regular season, regardless of conference — but the MLS champions will still come via the playoffs. By 2020, with 26 teams and a likely an even more unbalanced schedule, the importance of the Supporters’ Shield as a league title will certainly diminish.
But this isn’t a story about that trophy’s slow demise. Rather, it is a peak into the crystal ball of what the MLS landscape will look like. The simplest scenario — keep the league at two conferences, 13 in each one — won’t rock the boat too much and keep most of the traditional schedule the way it is. Nashville and Miami would set up shop in the East, and mystery city #26 would take residence in the West. Those pulling for Sacramento Republic FC to make the jump to Division One — a natural fit in the conference along with the other three California teams — would certainly welcome such a plan.
Can Sacramento be ready for MLS in just a year’s time? They have a successful USL franchise, a loyal fan-base, and a future stadium site that is shovel-ready; however, they failed to impress the league expansion committee back in December and were told to get their financial backing in order before any decision would be made. Even if that came to fruition, the Republic would have to play in a temporary venue until its downtown stadium was ready. The league, while admitting that Miami has a similar plan in play, is less likely willing to do that in Sacramento, a city without a suitable MLS-ready facility.
The ongoing drama in Ohio regarding the fate of the Columbus Crew could also hamper Sacramento’s bid to join MLS. In what reeks of a not-if-but-when situation, the Crew, the charter club of the league, seem destined to be relocated to Austin, Texas, and with such a move step up to be the logical 13th Western Conference team. This would open the door for FC Cincinnati to assume Columbus’ place in the East, one year prior to Nashville and Miami coming aboard. The effect: Houston and Dallas gain another Texas derby, and MLS keeps its Midwestern footprint in Ohio.
Back to why any of this matters to San Jose, it’s longest serving supporters are quite sensitive to the machinations of MLS. Watching the fans of the Crew, many loyal supporters since the club’s inception in 1996, possibly have their team uprooted has struck a collective nerve in South Bay soccer followers. Teams in professional sports move — that has been, is, and will be the way it works in North America — but it still is painful to be swept up by the emotions when it happens. If the Crew do move to Austin, making it easier for MLS to justify an expansion side in Cincinnati, it will further cement the notion that no club is permanent and any owner can be disloyal to his community.
And, as a result, Sacramento will be left on the sidelines, once again, of the MLS party. The Quakes, meanwhile, will lose a potential regional rival that would have fueled a competitive Northern California soccer hotbed. It’s a given that LA will always be public enemy number one to Earthquakes fans, but the Republic would easily rise to number two. Opportunity: lost.
During Miami’s MLS announcement, Beckham and his business partner Marcelo Claure revealed that only two months before, their expansion bid was on life support. They were close to abandoning the entire project due to setbacks and delays. But new investors emerged in Miami-based entrepreneurs and brothers Jorge and Jose Mas, and the renewed spirit of the expanded ownership group accelerated the process, saving the bid and allowing Beckham to bring MLS back to Miami. Though it wasn’t known back then, such big-money maneuvering threw a monkey wrench into Sacramento’s plans, and the city’s fate as an MLS bid bridesmaid was sealed.
The Earthquakes, regardless of which city is awarded MLS team #26, have their own plan in place, one that, with or without the Republic in their backyard, will continue to spread their influence over the area. The Quakes Academy continues to grow, with the Earthquakes first team welcoming a pair of teenagers, Jacob Akanyirige and Gilbert Fuentes, this off-season, paving a path to the pros for other aspiring young players in the region. Those kids, and the others who will join in the years to come, won’t mind if they have to travel to Cincinnati, Sacramento, or any other MLS expansion hopeful as they fulfill their soccer dreams.
Miami garnered the attention of the soccer world this week; meanwhile, the repercussions will be felt throughout the country for many years to come. For San Jose, it could simply be a change to its travel plans come 2020. For Sacramento, it may have consigned it to a lower league existence for the foreseeable future. Beckhamania, like it was a decade ago, is back and in full effect again.
2020 MLS Conference Alignment (projected)
Atlanta United FC
Miami Beckham United
Nashville Tenn SC
New England Revolution
New York City FC
New York Red Bulls
Orlando City SC
Los Angeles FC
Minnesota United FC
Real Salt Lake
San Jose Earthquakes
Seattle Sounders FC
Sporting Kansas City
Vancouver Whitecaps FC