Opinion: The Future of NFL Soccer vs Pro/Rel
Major League Soccer (MLS) has come a remarkably long way since its initial season in 1996. Starting with just ten teams playing mostly in cavernous and outdated (1920s-1970s built) stadiums designed for NFL and colleges, MLS franchises were located outside city centers drawing average crowds in the low ten thousands. With the Hunt and Anschutz families as the crucial lead investors and owners of the single entity model for the better part of a decade, the league was eventually able to overcome the many challenges that any upstart typically faces, and has since successfully attracted dozens of new investors and partners, increasing the company’s value in the hundreds of millions of US dollars. Today the league has grown to twenty-four teams (including the recent announcement of Nashville, Tennessee), with several other cities / markets looking to join. Attendance is now averaging in the low twenty thousands (bolstered significantly by the expansion franchise Atlanta United), MLS has focused its efforts on acquiring nineteen soccer-specific stadiums (SSS) with more on the horizon, and turning itself into an impressive multi-billion dollar private company. Its proprietary marketing arm, Soccer United Marketing (SUM), also represents the United States Soccer Federation (USSF), by packaging MLS broadcast, merchandizing and ticketing revenues alongside the US Men’s, Women’s and Youth National Teams. This deal has helped inject hundreds of millions of dollars into both MLS and USSF, creating stability and financial growth for both entities.
Like any aspiring national league, MLS always had its sites set on becoming a top five US sports league standing side-by-side in the ranks with the NHL, NBA, MLB, and NFL in terms of attendance, markets, and TV deals. To do so, MLS needed to move through several phases. When it began, the goal of the league (as MLS 1.0), was to first get the metaphorical and literal ball rolling. With the full support of USSF, the fandom garnered from the 1994 FIFA World Cup held in the USA, MLS was able to establish a modest core following in the late 1990s and early 2000s. USSF awarded exclusive USSF Division 1 recognition and three CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) berths to the MLS at the onset, giving them a virtual monopoly on national soccer, and subjugated existing leagues l
ike APSL (later renamed “A League” and eventually morphing into USL) to lower division designations. Still, the attendance and the TV deals made at the time were not enough for the league to financially sustain itself or the rent from fifty thousand to one hundred thousand seat stadiums, when those venues were only filled at 20% to 10% capacity. By 1999, with the construction of the Columbus Crew Stadium – the first MLS soccer stadium – the league began to lay the foundations for MLS 2.0 (a league of strategic and sustainable growth that can rise to the attendance levels of the NHL and NBA). As the years past, several MLS teams saw the advantages of building their own 15,000 to 25,000 seat venue – similar in size to NHL / NBA arenas – in order to create intimate space, control the revenue stream, and invest in long term organic growth. Beyond 2005, the league saw a wave of almost annual expansion in key top thirty TV markets across the country as well as new soccer stadiums.
By 2009, most teams in the league were still averaging in the low ten thousands, but were seeing steady results. Meanwhile, one team, the Seattle Sounders, broke the mold. Rather than build a SSS, the team played at the relatively new Century Link Field located in the center of Seattle near downtown, highways, transit, restaurants, and other important attractions and amenities. With sleek tarp designs, the Sounders were able to optically downsize the venue from approximately 70,000 to 40,000 and draw average crowds in the 30,000 range. Between 2009 and 2017, the Sounders in a strategically located NFL stadium and incrementally averaged crowds in the 40,000+ mark. Similar to the Sounders, the Vancouver Whitecaps played in a newly refurbished CFL stadium at BC Place in Vancouver, BC, which also shared the same attributes as Seattle’s venue in terms of location and amenities. Different from Seattle’s open air only stadium, BC Place has a retractable roof. Rather than use tarp, the Whitecaps were able to optically downsize their venue from 54,000 to 22,000 with draping technology. Since 2011, the Whitecaps have continued to average in the 20,000+ mark. These two teams laid the foundation for what eventually would become MLS 3.0 (a soccer league that can reach the heights of MLB and the NFL), but it would only be fully authenticated with the recent success of Atlanta.
In 2017, Atlanta United played its first MLS season in style by breaking several US soccer team attendance records, including the highest average for any team at 48,000. Atlanta did not do this at a typical MLS soccer-specific stadium (18,000-25,000 seat venue) which the league passionately focused on for over ten years. They did it in a brand new downtown 70,000 seat NFL retractable-roof stadium that was also strategically designed to incorporate soccer as a main co-sport. The goal for Mercedes-Benz Stadium was to adopt the models and strategies used in Seattle and Vancouver. In doing so, the team draped the upper decks of the venue to create more intimacy and were able to average nearly fifty thousand fans, outdoing Seattle’s record.
Between 2005 and 2017, MLS 2.0 saw a steady average growth from 15,000 to 22,000, surpassing the NHL and NBA in this regard. At this juncture, MLS is looking towards the next decade in the 2020s and its long term future. The league has officially entered its 3.0 model where it is aiming to become the “NFL of Soccer” in which it can maximize its league at approximately 32 teams in key markets across the US, with large TV deals, and average well beyond 30,000 to 40,000+.
In this article, I will share my reasoning as to where MLS will be expanding to, what will be their maximum amount of teams, how their exclusive structure will ultimately affect clubs left outside the league, and how this all will play a significant role in the creation of national promotion and relegation in the USA. Let’s begin.
Competing Cities For MLS Expansion
Major League Soccer has done a tremendous job of creating high demand for entrance to their league based on limited access. MLS, contrary to other D1 soccer leagues around the world under FIFA, is a closed system that does not have promotion and relegation. In other words, a team does not enter the league through sporting merit of play, but must pay an expansion fee currently at $150 million (USD) to join the exclusive group and gain access to three CCL berths – a price which will continue to rise as the years pass under USSF’s watch. This year, there were 12 cities specifically that submitted multi-million dollar proposals to join the league, including: Charlotte, Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis, Nashville, Phoenix, Raleigh, Sacramento, San Antonio, San Diego, St. Louis, and Tampa Bay. Here are their locations (including existing teams, Miami and a possible relocation from Columbus to Austin):
In 2017, MLS had 23 teams (prior to any of the new and up coming expansion announcements). For the 2018 season, the league will be structured as follows during league play:
While MLS’ current league format is split between two conferences of West and East, the future of the league beyond 2021 will ultimately resemble that of the NFL with four regions (sans the AFC and NFC conference split which each has four regions for a total of eight).
To astutely calculate where MLS is going, all we have to do is look at a four region map of the USA:
The above map, yes, utilized by US Youth Soccer, already has the right idea outlined for a balanced four region system / league(s), for any sport in the USA, with the West, South, North, and East highlighted. Undoubtedly, these are the best grouping for the 50 US states, and will actually form the foundation for a future national Promotion and Relegation (#ProRelForUSA) system in the country.
That said, a similar map to the one above is what MLS is utilizing to ensure that they are covered across the country. Let’s reorganize all 23 teams into their appropriate region based on the map:
Here we can clearly see with new focus where MLS is, and where they are seeking to be. There is a substantial gap to fill in the South and the North regions. These are the areas that the league will focus on the most in their upcoming expansion.
Though the league has said that it will stop at 28, adding just five teams to the current 23, as the table above shows, the league has room for growth and will likely be aiming for a balanced 32 team structure with 8 teams in each region. In doing so, the league would be located in strategic TV markets, would have regional derbies / competitions, short distance travel for fans and teams, more reach and influence for the sport, and would finally be comparable on a national scale to the NHL, NBA, MLB, and NFL with 30+ teams per league.
In comparison to the aforementioned leagues, MLS commissioner Don Garber has stated recently at the MLS State of the League press conference, on December 8th, 2017, that “We (MLS) are a private business. All teams can, in any league — if they satisfy the test as to whether or not the factors are not existing for them to be successful — could come to the league and try to determine whether or not that team can move.” Again, “All teams can…move”.
MLS 3.0, like the other top five US leagues, has grown very confident enough that, given the right circumstance, any one of its teams that are not meeting the sought after financial threshold can move to another location in order to raise their attendance and profitability. This situation is presently magnified in Columbus and resonates deep with their fans, as the owner / operator of the Columbus Crew is clandestinely working with the league to relocate the team to Austin. With the process already far along, the team will likely and unfortunately move, as seen numerous of times in the NFL (including these past years in St. Louis, San Diego, and Oakland). No team, according to the MLS commissioner, is permanently safe in their location as any one of them can relocate at any given time.
That said, here is where MLS will likely be by 2018:
- Nashville, Detroit and Miami will join as expansions 24, 25, and 26
- Columbus will be relocated to Austin.
- This creates a balanced 13 teams each in the Western and Eastern Conferences.
The expansion of Miami, as MLS team 26, has already been promised to David Beckham’s group, and is expected to get finalized within the coming year with a potential announcement in January.
Of the twelve bidding markets to join MLS, four cities were selected in this round to be the candidates for teams 24 and 25: Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville, and Sacramento. Though all of these cities, in my view, deserve to be given equal and fair opportunity to compete under merit of play for a division 1 recognition as done so around the world – instead of having to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to join, only two teams are being seriously considered at this point by MLS 3.0 because of what the league is looking to accomplish moving forward. These are Nashville and Detroit.
Let’s start off with why Cincinnati and Sacramento were not favored at this point in the eyes of MLS.
(Do note that I sincerely support these cities having the chance to reach D1 status, and the following is only an analysis behind what MLS is potentially thinking from a business point of view):
- With 20,000+ averages during league games, 30,000+ attendance in various US Open Cup games, a strong following, a solid market, an existing stadium to use, an NFL stadium nearby for larger matches, a potential soccer-specific stadium site, and an excellent position to fill the north for MLS, Cincinnati was not considered for one main reason: Columbus. The league is still in the process of sorting out this concerning situation. By selecting Cincinnati now, it would be a direct insult to Crew fans and it would only exacerbate that situation further – creating an even larger PR nightmare than what it already is. Once the team is moved to Austin, by sometime in 2018 and 2019, Cincinnati will be selected by MLS in the next round as team 27 or 28 to reenter the state of Ohio. This gives the team enough time to solidify their SSS deal and potentially bring in additional NFL backing by the owners of the Bengals.
- With 12,000+ consistent average for the past several years, 20,000+ attendances for various matches, a solid TV market, a downtown stadium site ready to go (with shovels literally in the ground), and reasonable proximity to teams throughout California and Cascadia, Sacramento was not considered for one main reason: three existing teams already in the same state with one relatively nearby, and no NFL or MLB stadium in the 40,000+ range. Though Sacramento checks all the boxes for a great soccer city, MLS 3.0 wants to go to as many states as possible and cover as much TV markets as they can. With the San Jose Earthquakes covering the San Francisco Bay area, like an NFL team, the Earthquakes’ position are likely seen by MLS as theoretically being just enough to be reached by Sacramento and all of northern and parts of central California and northern Nevada. Furthermore, unlike other cities, Sacramento does not have a large NFL or MLB stadium in which the team could grow into, which the league would like for its teams to have access to. Though there is NHL presence, there is no MLB or NFL teams which would give the league some visible track record that the city can support 40,000+ for a sports venue. Unfortunately, I don’t see Sacramento ever being a part of MLS 3.0’s vision. Though anyone could be wrong – and I hope I am – it is unlikely for the multiple reasons ahead.
Accepted Cities – Let’s look at why Nashville and Detroit are the selected cities in this round:
Nashville (Note: at the release of this document, Nashville was officially selected as team 24, and with ownership issues in Sacramento and funding problems in Cincinnati, Detroit is the presumed front runner)
- A guaranteed 30,000 seat soccer-specific stadium to be constructed.
- Access to the 70,000 seat Nissan Stadium for playoffs, championships, friendlies, international tournaments, and other special events, which just last year had two games well above 40,000+.
- Exclusive market and new state for the league.
- The ability to corner the market in the state: The central location of Nashville is surrounded by other large key cities in the state such as Memphis, Chattanooga, Knoxville which the team can favorably attract in order to unite and dominate the state.
- Substantially fills the south region, and serves as a good regional rival with Atlanta.
- Has the right ownership, which includes NFL backing (namely the Wilf family who own US Bank Stadium in Minnesota which now can provide big access for Minnesota United, as Nissan Stadium would be for the Nashville team. It’s a win for Nashville and the league as a whole.)
- A 2017 fully renovated 65,000 seat NFL domed stadium in downtown Detroit, near highways, transit, restaurant, attractions, and other important amenities.
- Due to venue size, potential drape technology, and vision for the team, Ford Field in Detroit has the enormous potential to replicate Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, as well as Vancouver and Seattle by reducing the venue to about 25,000-30,000 seats while giving the team room to grow.
- Access to the 100,000 seat Michigan Stadium (which had two US record-setting soccer games in the 100,000+ mark in both 2015 and 2016), international games and other special events.
- Exclusive market and new state for the league, by the Great Lakes with direct link to Canada.
- The ability to corner the market in the state, with other cities like Ann Arbor, Lansing, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, and more potentially supporting the Detroit / Michigan team.
- Fills a large gap in the north region, and serves as a regional rival to Chicago, and potentially Cincinnati, and Cleveland (in the future).
- Has the right ownership group, with NFL backing (from the Detroit Lions and a member of the Ford Family) which will give the soccer team many benefits in the venue.
In addition to all of this, there is a growing and passionate soccer fan base in Detroit that exclusively supports the club Detroit City FC, which plays in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). With rising attendances in the 5,000 to 6,000+ range, DCFC and its supporters – the Northern Guard (NG) – are continuously growing and gaining national attention both with their passion for their team, exuberant game-day atmosphere, savvy and devoted social media presence, and community outreach for both followers and charitable organizations. The independently owned club are attempting to transition from an amateur team in the NPSL to a professional one in either the North American Soccer League (NASL) or the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA) by 2018 or 2019. However, the instability and unknown future of the NASL, along with an inability to secure a financial investor that meets the Professional League Standards set forth by USSF in 2011, has left the future of the club in limbo and in danger of being overshadowed and crushed by the financial juggernauts of MLS and the expansion teams of Gilbert, Gores and Ford.
By entering Detroit, MLS will attempt to attract the DCFC fan base and potentially merge paths with the existing team. Due to the organic and “team first” attitudes of the rabid DCFC faithful, along with the ham-fisted attempts to co-opt the supporters culture by the MLS expansion group, this highly unlikely to happen. Yet MLS is betting that despite the lack of grassroots support, there are enough casual fans and financial momentum to push the expansion bid along, and will likely still go to Detroit because of the compelling reasons mentioned above.
It is highly probable that Detroit City FC and their will fans remain independent, however it can be argued that they shouldn’t be worried about competition, as their club is very unique in the market and is unlikely to lose their fan base. Instead, the visibility an expansion MLS team can create will continue to highlight them as the real club of the people, distinctly different from the top down, corporate approach of MLS. Detroit, with 4.3 million residents is truly big enough for two clubs. Furthermore, there will be significant differences between a Detroit MLS team and DCFC:
- Atmospheres (a cavernous NFL downtown stadium vs a residential neighborhood soccer stadium akin to soccer venues in Europe like England and Germany which are ingrained in their society)
- Leagues (MLS vs NASL / NISA; closed vs potential national promotion and relegation).
- Representation (single entity franchise vs independently owned and operated club – which may astutely include partial fan / community ownership)
- Fan base (new and limited to arbitrary and amorphous league rules vs traditional and free to express themselves as they like)
- Massive cost disparities, where DCFC tickets are roughly around $10, MLS tickets hover in the $30 to $50 range per person, not including expensive downtown parking
That said, this is what the 26 teams in MLS (with Nashville, Detroit, Miami, and Austin) will look like in their four regions which the league wants to steadily fill up to 32:
At this point, the league is almost filled in the south and east, and only needs to keep growing in the north. That leaves only six spots left.
By 2018, for the next round of expansion, there will be at least 14 cities bidding – including: Charlotte, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Phoenix, Raleigh, Sacramento, San Antonio, San Diego, St. Louis, and Tampa Bay. Here are their locations (including existing teams, as well as Miami, Austin, Nashville, and Detroit):
The remaining 10 cities that were not previously selected, will be possibly joined in the future rounds of expansion by new entries Cleveland, Las Vegas, New Orleans, and Oklahoma City. Here’s what these top TV markets look like in the region table relevant to MLS:
Note: While both Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, in North Carolina, are considered to be in the south region, their north-eastern most position in the south geography places them relatively close to the East region which is theoretically bound by the south of Virginia near Norfolk. For purposes of potential entry to the league, they are placed in the east.
Remember, that the East region only needs one more team, the North needs four, and the South needs one. So from these candidates, most of the ones in the north will be selected, as well as one from the east, one from the south, and potentially one from the west with proper realignment as shown ahead.
Of these 14 cities, only six will be selected to join the other four. It is my belief, based on a number of factors that those cities are: Cincinnati, Cleveland, St. Louis, Phoenix, Charlotte, and New Orleans.
In total, the ten new cities to join MLS will likely be Nashville, Detroit, Miami, Austin, Cincinnati, Cleveland, St. Louis, Phoenix, Charlotte, and New Orleans. As MLS wants to be the “NFL of Soccer”. This is how MLS 3.0 will likely be structured by 2026, in time for the FIFA World Cup – “as one of the top soccer leagues in the world”:
Let’s see some of the reasoning why Indianapolis, Las Vegas, Oklahoma City, Raleigh, Sacramento, San Antonio, San Diego and Tampa Bay, would not be selected for MLS 3.0.
Sacramento, and San Diego
- As previously mentioned – with three existing teams already in the state that can cover the north and south, the league will want to utilize each expansion as an opportunity to go to a new state.
- Like California, Texas – the second largest state – will also already have three teams in the Dallas, Houston, and Austin metro areas. For MLS 3.0, Austin is expected to be more than enough to attract the central area of the state and draw fans from San Antonio. The Austin team will have their SSS, access to the 100,000 seat Memorial Stadium, and will be able to play games from time to time at the Alamodome for special events to unite the area. The San Antonio Spurs ownership group could theoretically abandon their local bid, and even join Austin.
- Similar to California, Texas, and New York, Florida – the third largest state already has two teams covering the north and south areas. With Orlando City being so close to Tampa Bay, MLS 3.0 sees Orlando’s location as more than enough to draw and cover the Tampa Bay region.
- Furthermore, the stadium placement of the team was poorly conceived from a regional standpoint and a top 5 US league perspective. Like the Tampa Bay Rays who are moving to Tampa, the new Rowdies stadium needed to be in the city that made them famous in the 1970s and 1980s where they drew tens of thousands per game for several years – Tampa. Like the Vancouver Whitecaps, Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, and San Jose Earthquakes who were the Rowdies counterparts in the first iteration of the NASL, whose present stadiums are all in the main downtown hubs of their metro area, Tampa is where the Rowdies need to be. With the Rays and MLB critically under performing in attendance in St. Petersburg, MLS can not be convinced that soccer would succeed there. The only place that the Rowdies ever had any chance to enter MLS was in Tampa, at a 25,000 seat stadium shared with a reactivated football team for the University of Tampa, with partnership from the Buccaneers and access to Raymond James Stadium (which could’ve also been optically reduced in size like Century Link Field in Seattle).
- For MLS 3.0, Oklahoma is seen as an extension of Texas in terms of TV markets, similar to the NFL and MLB. With FC Dallas, the league theoretically has reach in the Sooner State. Plus, there is no MLB or NFL stadium, located downtown, that the team could use for special events.
- While a very attractive market like the other candidates, Raleigh has to compete with Charlotte which has an NBA team and an accessible 75,000 seat NFL stadium, which has a proven performance record that MLS can gauge. Raleigh, unfortunately, though with a largely attended college stadium in the 50,000+ range, doesn’t have the proven numbers at the pro level. Between Raleigh and Charlotte to fill the east, the latter is the league’s preferable choice.
- With the change in ownership of the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, the distinct possibility of a renewed MLS bid utilizing Bank of America stadium as a venue becomes more probable
- The proposed MLS bid by NCFC is based upon a parcel of land that is owned by the state, and has yet to be secured for construction due to political roadblocks
- Should the Raleigh location become a non-starter, the existing stadium in Cary, NC would be an alternative, but would require significant upgrades in both infrastructure and size, as well as an ideological shift from the MLS expansion committee towards venues in city centers, to remote, less urban locations. However, with the acceptance of Nashville there is a new precedence being set that given enough money and public funding, any issue, including location, can be overcome.
- Though a good contender in the north, it is up against Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Cleveland for ideal markets that are further spread out. For MLS 3.0, Indianapolis’ location between Chicago and Cincinnati is more than enough for the latter two to reach this city in terms of TV market.
- Furthermore the city has not solidified their stadium plan, which has been ongoing for a few years now. In an intuitive change of direction, Indy Eleven could potentially replicate Atlanta’s layout and attendance draw, like Detroit is attempting to do, and move into Lucas Oil Stadium with a possible part ownership from the Indianapolis Colts. That could make Indianapolis’ bid more attractive for MLS.
- While the West region is practically full, there is space for one more team with the relocation of the Colorado Rapids to the north, as shown ahead. That would leave Las Vegas and Phoenix as the remaining candidates for this slot. Though Las Vegas now has an NHL team and an NFL team and stadium on the way, Phoenix’s position is better suited for its TV market to spread to other areas including Las Vegas, NV as well as New Mexico – covering three states for the price of one.
Additional Accepted Cities
Six: Cincinnati, Cleveland, St. Louis, Phoenix, Charlotte, and New Orleans.
- All of them have NFL and / or MLB stadiums that can be used for playoffs, championships, friendlies, international tournaments, and other special events. These NFL venues can also be converted with tarp and draping techniques into soccer venues (Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Charlotte – similar to Seattle, and St. Louis, Phoenix, and New Orleans – similar to Atlanta.)
- Exclusive markets and new states for the league.
- The ability to corner the market in the individual states
- Substantially fill the north region, while completing the west, south, and east – all serving as regional rivals to existing teams
- All potentially have the backing of NFL owners and the potential to build SSS.
This is what the 32 teams in MLS 3.0 can look like in the years to come:
Here are the same teams spread out per region:
- Columbus would become Austin in the south.
- Colorado Rapids would be shifted to the North to make room for Phoenix in the West.
- Charlotte would enter the East.
- Nashville, Miami, Austin, and New Orleans would be the newly added South teams.
- Detroit, Cincinnati, Cleveland, St. Louis would be the newly added North teams.
- Each of the selected new cities represent new states or metro areas.
- Each of the four superstates would have 2 to 3 teams. Here they are in order of population:
- California has three teams – San Jose Earthquakes, Los Angeles FC, and LA Galaxy
- Texas has three teams – FC Dallas, Houston Dynamo, and Austin
- Florida has two teams – Orlando City SC, and Miami
- New York / New Jersey (metro) has two teams – New York City FC, and New York Red Bulls
This puts MLS in 30 distinct top US and Canadian markets (2 teams in each of LA and NY), within 23 USA States and 3 Canadian Provinces for a total of 26 – while being spread out enough to reach other areas of these two countries.
This distribution also serves as good road trips for fans and teams, reducing travel cost. With 32 teams, in the right places, with large TV contract deals, and growing influence throughout the USA and Canada, MLS would have achieved it’s ultimate goal of becoming the “NFL of Soccer”.
Without a doubt, MLS has come a long way from its start in 1996, and from a business standpoint it should be recognized for its individual achievement.
The Glaring Truth About US Soccer D1
That said, and with all due respect, the league’s accomplishments over the years do not directly benefit everyone else not participating in the party or who couldn’t afford the admission price of $150 million+ dollars and in turn don’t receive financial shares, because they don’t form part of the league. While MLS caps at 32 teams in the targeted areas outlined above, similar to the NFL, with possible change of a few cities shifted around due to relocation and other financial interest, over 9,000+ US clubs and 300+ US cities and 27 additional US states and millions of fans are indefinitely left out of USSF D1, primarily due to the existence of the arbitrary and discriminatory USSF Professional League Standards (USSF PLS) which has favored MLS and simultaneously prevents other leagues from rising or being seen as D1 competitors (as completely detailed in a separate document called How the North American Soccer League (NASL) can truly win against the United States Soccer Federation (USSF). MLS has continuously and firmly stated that they will not do or form a part of a national promotion and relegation system because it is not, understandably from their vantage point, part of their vision nor their closed model, and as they say it wouldn’t be fair to their exclusive owners.
Furthermore, this also leaves eight cities out of the league that were trying to get in:
Ironically, all eight of these cities were directly linked in some capacity or another to the NASL, which is aiming to be a D1 league with promotion and relegation but is being suppressed by the imposition of the USSF PLS (which the NASL is presently fighting in court to eliminate, as leagues should have the equal and fair right to do business and create their own standards based on US laws). Six of these cities, with the exception of San Diego and Indianapolis, went to the United Soccer League (USL) with the contrived belief that it was the greatest chance for them to enter D1 – as USL expresses that they are the only pathway into MLS. Yet, none of these cities above will likely join MLS, in spite of six of them paying millions of dollars to join USL and millions more to simply apply to MLS and additional millions to make designs and work with the right people to build stadiums.
This also includes Columbus’ future, which MLS has callously said that they too could some day “reapply” for a franchise after the team moves to Austin. Unfortunately, even if Columbus tried to reenter the league, they likely wouldn’t be accepted because MLS 3.0 has a different vision which includes NFL stadiums and ownership.
For a number of years now, MLS has been laying the foundation for a major league + minor league model with the USL, which the latter has been very supportive of. In a few years time, the USL will turn into MLS’ official Minor League Soccer (MiLS). All of the above teams, including Columbus, as well as the rest of the teams in the USL have been setup to be minor league teams and will likely never gain D1 through USL or MLS because that door has been shut. And you know what? It’s been likely shut for years as the aforementioned accepted cities were already possibly predetermined by the league a long time ago.
Imagine if these nine cities & clubs, including the fans of Columbus, all the teams in the NASL, USL, NPSL, USASA, and beyond, wised up and realized what’s going on here: They are all being leveraged to superficially raise the prices of MLS expansion fees for cities that the league actually wants. This is called market manipulation, and franchise scarcity. #BuiltForMLS? No. Strategically #UsedByMLS. Rather than these cities spend hundreds of millions of dollars (9 x $150 million = $1.35 billion (USD)) to join the exclusive club and then invest more money to build stadiums, they could rethink their priorities and reinvest their money into themselves as a new collective, move away from the forthcoming minor league model which will keep them perpetually locked out of D1, and help change the dynamics in the USA to implement promotion and relegation where all of them and everyone else can have the equal and fair chance to become D1 clubs as done so around the world through merit of play.
Let’s be clear on something: Every credit goes where credit is due. Major League Soccer is looking out for itself as a private business and doing extremely well. This article is not an attempt to depreciate MLS’ ambitions or accomplishments as they are entitled to succeed and do what’s best for them. However, what’s best for them, as one league, does not necessarily equal what’s best for US Soccer and all its equal members across the country. Clubs, leagues, regional associations, and fans need to wake up, and see what’s going on: They are being left out of the global soccer market without access to D1. They can not just simply demand change from USSF and place all their hopes on an upcoming already controversial USSF Presidential election – but must do it themselves. They must act now and act together.
I recently proposed for an imperative national soccer summit, (https://dev-midfield-press.pantheonsite.io/2017/11/06/proposal-for-a-us-national-soccer-summit-in-2017/), which has been well received by many important persons in the soccer community, and so far things are already in motion for it to take place in January in Philadelphia concurrently with the annual NSCAA convention, led by John Paul Motta, President of the USASA.
If you value your clubs, if you value the sport, if you value the future of soccer in the USA – make it your mission to join the summit. All your voices matter (NASL, USL, NISA, NPSL, UPSL, PDL, ASL, APSL, GCPL, all USASA, MASL, MLF, PFL, WPSL, and UWS). Come one, come all (fans included). Respectfully, let MLS freely become the “NFL of Soccer” – a closed and independent system limited by 32 teams that can all be relocated, as it is their right to do so. Meanwhile, let the rest of the entire soccer family in the US intelligently join forces, 9,000+ clubs and multiple leagues and associations strong and committed, to form the Premier League of the USA – a true open national soccer pyramid that is inclusive of everyone in the entire country as done around the world under FIFA, as it is also your right to do with the full support of USSF which has to give equal and fair representation to all its members.
An early Christmas gift has just been given to the whole US soccer community via the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA), which is aiming to connect with the NASL, NPSL, USASA, and all other leagues through promotion and relegation. They have eliminated all entry / expansion fees and territorial rights (https://dev-midfield-press.pantheonsite.io/2017/11/06/proposal-for-a-us-national-soccer-summit-in-2017/), which ultimately allows for all clubs in the USA to participate. This is a milestone moment for soccer in this country.
Your clubs are not franchises and shouldn’t ever be moved to another city. Your city shouldn’t be left out of D1 soccer because another nearby market is just enough to attract yours via TV. Like College Football which covers more towns, cities, metro areas, and states and is significantly bigger and more inclusive than the NFL, an open national US soccer pyramid (NASL+NISA+NPSL+UPSL+USASA and all other leagues) will be greater than any closed soccer system. We can and must do better to unlock our true potential as a soccer nation because soccer belongs to everyone. It is the people’s sport and the world’s game.
We need promotion and relegation for the greater good of our sport, and we need it now. It will happen when we all unite and stand together. An American Soccer Revolution is coming.
Economist, Urban Planner, and Educator
Editor’s Note: The photo of Michigan Stadium was mislabeled as match between Real Madrid and Chelsea, rather than Manchester United vs Real Madrid. The caption has been corrected.
We are getting pro/rel with NISA in 2019 that will eventually compete with MLS/USL so very soon we will see which system is better.
Nice article, pro/rel is not happening however now, later or ever in the U.S.
It started with 12 teams, not 10. It shrunk the two Florida franchises.
There were ten original franchises in the MLS, including Tampa.
Miami Fusion FC were expansion along with Chicago in ’98, and yes Miami and Tampa were folded.
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