MLS manages growing pains with expansion plans

New York City FC's decision to play at Yankee Stadium offers the most high-profile example of the increased risks inherent to a more ambitious expansion policy.

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MLS enjoyed a rather charmed existence with its expansion markets over the past seven years or so. Toronto FC started a procession of successful additions when it joined the league in 2007. New market after new market marched into the league one after another with only modest concerns or issues raised along the way.

Smooth sailing lasts only so long with manifest destiny in sight, though. At some point, the evolving model needs to depart from the status quo in order to sustain growth. And that juncture arrived right around the time the league charted its course for 24 teams by the end of the decade.

The aggressive timetable left little room for modest initiatives. Forget about the professedly strict adherence to soccer-specific stadiums or other tangible criteria. Impetus prompted a more flexible approach to enticing markets and venues, even with the attendant increases in potential pitfalls.

By expanding its scope beyond cities and investor/operator groups with financing in place or shovels in the ground, MLS increased its options and provided some latitude to take risks.

The recent string of inclusions reinforces the league’s desire to blend ambition with prudence. New York City FC exchanged cash payable in 2015 for considerations when it entered the league last year with a stadium plan based solely around financial and political capital. Orlando City joined the ranks next as a comparably safer option with a proven track record in the USL and a stadium plan in place. Miami leaped into the fray with a stadium-related asterisk after David Beckham exercised a contractual option too lucrative for him to resist. Atlanta rounded out the quartet last week with a reasonable plan involving a football stadium tailored to soccer, a large market and a wealthy owner with control over revenue streams.

MARRIAGE OF INCONVENIENCE?

Consider the entire group on its whole. The mix represents the biggest city in the country (New York City), the largest metropolitan area without a MLS team (Atlanta) and two international destinations with significant population bases (Miami and Orlando). The cities boast high profiles and possess the capability – on paper, at least – to support clubs. They constitute logical ports of call for a league trying to cobble together a 24-team league and expand its geographic footprint.

Behind this grand line of thought lays an acceptance of some hurdles. There are no more certain markets, no more sure things to tap. The entire scope of the proceedings mandates a willingness to extend past the comfort zone and requires some educated guesswork to pull everything together.

Not every component will come off as planned, nor will the foundations taken for granted elsewhere always stand as firm as expected in these new markets. New York City FC faces an almighty fight to build a suitable venue under a new mayoral regime far more skeptical of these sorts of endeavors despite its inherent advantages. Miami picked the most difficult and utterly spectacular spot to build its ground and presented its plan to a populace skeptical of its intentions in the wake of the Marlins Park debacle. Orlando City threw up its hands to the inevitable delay on its own stadium after a defiant church decided to hold out for top dollar and then some to conceded its plot.

Each and every one of these foibles factors into the overall design and execution of the plan, though they are certainly not accepted or welcomed. The broad, sweeping nature of the expansion blueprint exposes its components to failures along the way. The situations at New York City FC – not as the club saves money at the historic and ill-fitting Yankee Stadium, but as the well-heeled investors prepare to spend a lot of it on their new stadium – and in Miami warrant close examination. They present potentially damaging issues both clubs and the league must sidestep. The rather safer options in Atlanta (financially feasible from day one in a large market) and Orlando City (cultivated in adherence to the models of the past) supply the stability required to navigate the group through on the while.

Balance looms as the key in this desperate thirst to push the boundaries and stock the teams with suitable players. The desire to press onward leaves MLS vulnerable to the criticisms it currently faces about the blips in these markets and the wider concerns about player expenditures and signings in a larger league. Rigorous scrutiny is part of the league’s development, a natural next step for a competition where standards increase on and off the field each year. No longer does the prospect of sharing with a football team full-time or using a baseball stadium for an indefinite period of time receive a corresponding pass simply for the benefits potentially derived.

Opening up the ranks in this fashion ensures plenty of these discussions will linger as the decade unfolds. MLS steered away from the safe course in search of a bolder and brighter future. It must now ensure the transition from this wildly successful phase to a more precarious era unfolds as smoothly as possible to protect the bedrock constructed during calmer times.