MLS Expansion: Too Much of a Good Thing?
Updated: Oct 2, 2020
The most recent addition to Major League Soccer, FC Cincinnati, has struggled immensely in its first season since being added to the top soccer league in the United States. As the season draws to a close, Cincinnati has now broken the league record for goals scored against them in a single season. The team’s introduction to MLS is not a new feeling for expansion franchises in MLS; most expansion franchises struggle in their acclimation to a higher standard of play. MLS has been undergoing rapid expansion over the last decade as it has seen the interest in soccer grow massively over that period. Naturally, MLS has looked to capitalize financially through franchise expansion, spreading teams to every big market city possible. However, is this expansion actually beneficial to the long-term success of the league?
In 2015, Orlando SC entered MLS and since then, have yet to finish higher than seventh in their conference and are still without a playoff appearance. 2019 marks the first time that Minnesota United has cracked the playoffs after finishing 9th and 10th in their first two years in the league. Since joining in 2012, Montreal Impact has qualified for the playoffs only twice. Some teams do make the leap to MLS without much struggle, such as Atlanta United who won the championship in only their second season; however, as seen in FC Cincinnati, MLS expansion is not improving the quality of play.
The Designated Player Rule allows teams to pay three players above the league-imposed salary restrictions. This rule has meant that MLS teams could attract foreign talents. The Designated Player Rule is still limited in that teams can only have 3 stars. A team literally could not attract more high-profile players once they reach their 3 players. MLS has been seen as the “retirement league” of foreign stars once they have run their course in the top European leagues. The high-profile players that come from overseas are usually looking for a big paycheck on their way to retirement. They are generally well past their prime and leave MLS within a few years, giving a brief, fleeting impression on the American soccer scene.
The current biggest star of MLS, Zlatan Ibrahimović, has been very outspoken about the poor quality of play and structure of MLS in comparison to European competition. As seen through FC Cincinnati’s extreme struggles this season, it is clear that there is quite a disparity between player ability throughout the league. As the league expands, it will only distribute the talent even further. This may be able to balance the ability of each team; however, as it dilutes the talent of teams and the league becomes less competitive, it will cause MLS to be less desirable for foreign stars.
As MLS is a business selling soccer as its product, a superior end product is what will drive long-term success. In the short term, it is clear that expansion teams help increase revenue for the league. More teams mean more fans, larger media deals, and more overall revenue; however, as stars such as Zlatan Ibrahimović, Wayne Rooney, and Bastian Schweinsteiger retire, I see the continued expansion as a problem for enticing other stars to come over. What MLS needs is an improved quality of soccer. The league has gained a nationwide fanbase for its teams, but now what it must do now is improve the teams it already has. If the ultimate goal of MLS is to rival the competition in Europe (which is what it should be), then they must seek to make the league more attractive to younger players. Young players drive the growth of a sports league as they will be the constants for years to come. To avoid the inevitability of another FC Cincinnati, MLS must do something to consolidate talent and competition until MLS can support more teams.