MLS Commissioner Don Garber discussed a variety of topics today on an All-Star weekend USAToday.com chat. Most notably, it was revealed that two Western Conference teams will move to the East next season with the arrival of expansion teams in Portland and Vancouver. This would leave the West with eight teams and increase the East to ten, and likely eleven with the addition of Montreal for the 2012 season. This left me wondering, why the disproportionate number of teams (11 and 8?). Why not just leave the East at eight next season, which will then become nine with the addition of Montreal in 2012?
Could the answer lie in MLS’ plans for future expansion? It’s no secret that the league wants to develop regional rivalries between teams like in the Northeast and Northwest (NY, New England, Philadelphia, DC and Seattle, Portland, Vancouver). Commissioner Garber mentioned “beyond 20 (teams)…” specific interest in Atlanta, San Antonio, San Diego, Detroit, and Miami. But Montreal only puts MLS at nineteen, did MLS just hint at who WON’T be getting the 20th team in Major League Soccer?
New York has been a popular rumor as a destination for MLS’ twentieth team, with a possible soccer-specific stadium near Citi Field and the owner of the NY Mets at the helm of the franchise.
It’s interesting to note that the league does not appear to be replicating England’s division structure with only twenty “premiere” teams and a relegation system – at least, not yet. Instead, MLS may add another handful of teams to its East/West conferences and look more like its North America counterparts for other professional sports. The inclusion of Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal can hopefully help to grow the sport in Canada as well, where a more competitive national team would create an intriguing additional rival for the United States and Mexico.
Ultimately, a relegation system further down the road would add an exciting dimension to North American soccer. And if new teams are able to create revenue, or at least break even, the more the merrier as long the quality of play continues to improve. With a larger league, the National team’s talent pool stands to gain as well as MLS clubs maintain youth training academies to identify and develop local prospects around the United States.
One question is how big is too big for MLS? Does concentrating teams in certain regions strengthen the league through local rivalries or limit the reach of the league to key markets in cities with other passionate sports followings (Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Charlotte, and New Orleans come to mind)? St. Louis, Phoenix, Ottawa, and Birmingham have also been previously rumored as possible expansion targets for the growing league.