Next year marks the next major phase in the expansion of Major League Soccer. Over the next six years, the league will expand from 19 to 24 teams. The hope is to build on the success of the league and the growing popularity of soccer in the United States. However, this quick expansion will test new markets for professional soccer.
The teams being added in the next season are already tried and true markets. New York City FC will join the New York Red Bulls as a second team in the New York metropolitan area. It will also be the first team officially in New York. The proposed NYCFC stadium is to be in Long Island, while the Red Bulls stadium is currently play across the Hudson in New Jersey. There is definitely a market for a second NYC area team. And this would create another city derby to draw in support. Certainly, a New York rivalry would play better than the current derby between the Galaxy and Chivas in Los Angeles. NYCFC will also be opening with a seasons coach, as Jason Kreis has announced his resignation from Real Salt Lake to manage the new team.
The other team set to join the MLS is Orlando City SC, and signals the rebirth of soccer in the Southeast. This may at first seem like a risky investment, with the last two attempts to bring Major League Soccer to Florida folding after a few seasons. However, the failures of Tampa and the Miami Fusion were over a decade ago, back when the MLS was still an upstarted league. Now on solid legs, the South represents a potential untapped market. Orlando is a good choice for this first move. The club is not being created anew, but is moving up from the USL Pro, so it already has an established audience. In fact, Orlando City regularly had some of the highest attendance during their stint in the USL Pro, drawing in an average of over 8,000 spectators. That high attendance will be a big initial boost for the move to the MLS.
The next phase in the expansion of the MLS will come in 2017 with further expansion in the South. Earlier in April, Don Garber, head of Major League Soccer, announced that a franchise would be awarded to Atlanta that would join the MLS in 2017. This is also when the David Beckham owned team in Miami is expected to begin play, though no official announcement has been made yet. Miami was largely Beckham’s choice, and while it does have potential, the fate of the Fusion could cast doubt on the potential team’s success. Opposition to the proposed stadium in the Port of Miami is also presenting a major setback to the plans for the team.
While the Miami team has not been officially announced, the MLS franchise coming to Atlanta has. The Atlanta team, to be owned by Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, will make its Major League Soccer debut in the 2017 season. This expansion is very significant for the MLS, as it will mark the first expansion of the league into the Southern United States outside of Texas and Florida. Being the first attempt to break into the Southeastern market presents both challenges and opportunities. The major opportunity is that with no other Major League Soccer teams in the region outside of Florida, the Atlanta franchise could draw in a fanbase from a wider area and the surrounding states. However, this also means that the region is an untested market. In terms of the stadium, Atlanta has less of a burden than the Miami franchise does. Because of the ownership of the team by Arthur Blank, the Atlanta franchise will be able to use the new Atlanta Falcons stadium for MLS games. Blank also appears to be heavily invested in the success of the Atlanta team, and cross-promotional efforts could go a long way toward ensuring the team’s financial stability.
With these planned teams, Major League Soccer will increase to 23 teams for the 2017 season. That still leaves one more possible slot to reach the desired 24 team league by 2020. Rumors on where Major League Soccer is looking for this last team abound, but there are a few markets that are more likely than others. The top two most likely locations for the 24th MLS team are Minneapolis and San Antonio. Minneapolis would provide a boost to the overall number of teams in the Midwest. Right now, the only MLS teams in the region are the Chicago Fire, Columbus Crew, and Sporting Kansas City. This year, Garber announced that Minneapolis was one of the cities on the shortlist for the 24th team. The proposal would most likely involve the Minnesota United NASL team moving up to the MLS, with a possible coordination with the Minnesota Twins on plans for a soccer specific stadium near the Target Field ballpark. San Antonio’s possibility has also been frequently discussed by Garber, and has gained the support of mayor Julian Castro. However, there is a question of saturation of the market for soccer in Texas. With FC Dallas and the Houston Dynamo already long-established teams, it is a concern whether Texas has the market for soccer to sustain three major league teams. The only other sport to have three teams located in Texas is the NBA. However, soccer is a fast growing sport in Texas, moreso than in the rest of the country. And with the San Antonio Spurs as the only other major sports franchise in the Austin-San Antonio area, an MLS team in San Antonio could attract a large audience.
With the expansion to 24 teams, Major League Soccer will become the largest top tier soccer league in the world. With its split between the Western and Eastern Conferences, the shuffling of teams as the league expands will also have the benefit of restoring logical rivalries. Unless the 24th team is on the East Coast, an even split between the two conferences would move Sporting Kansas City and the Houston Dynamo to the Western Conference. This would be a welcome move for many Texan soccer fans, as currently the Dallas and Houston teams are in separate conferences. Additionally, the move would restore the rivalry between the Colorado Rapids and Sporting Kansas City that existed before Sporting KC was moved to the Eastern Conference. These rivalries are just an added benefit to the expansion of Major League Soccer. With the growth of the MLS, it has also led to the growth of soccer in general in the United States and has spurred the expansion of the lower tiers as well. Currently, the USL Pro is fast adding new teams in smaller cities and has lofty plans to double its number of teams from 15 to 30 over the next ten years. The growth of both Major League Soccer and the USL Pro could finally elevate soccer to a mainstream sport in the United States. AS of the 2013 season, the MLS already has higher average attendance than the NHL and NBA, but still lags far behind either baseball or football. This growth could start to t lessen that gap.