Tip Sheet: MLS plans for the future after expanding to Atlanta

MLS commissioner Don Garber expects the league to delve deeply into several topics - including collective bargaining issues and realignment - to chart its course over the next few years.

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ATLANTA

Revelry only lasts so long for the commissioner of a professional sports league. MLS commissioner Don Garber gave himself a day to herald the arrival of Atlanta as the 22nd franchise before shifting his focus toward other weighty matters.

Wasting time simply isn’t an option. Extensive discussions are planned for next week, according to Garber.  There are several big picture items to contemplate as the league adjusts to the current landscape and charts its course for the future.

Realignment features prominently on the docket with New York City FC and Orlando City poised to join the league next year. Garber said he isn’t sure how the landscape will sort out at this point, but he noted the plans will accelerate in the coming months as MLS prepares for the introduction of five teams by the end of the decade.

“We’re going to start talking about that and planning for the impact of expansion over the next number of years, thinking about our new CBA,” Garber said after welcoming Atlanta into the league. “This is a happy day, a celebratory day, but it’s back to work tomorrow.”

PATIENCE REWARDED

The toil ahead requires both application and imagination given the geographic distribution of the new clubs. MLS plans to add four teams on the East Coast – Atlanta, NYCFC and Orlando City are confirmed, while Miami is waiting for confirmation on a stadium deal before it receives its official invitation – in short order. The fifth city – Minneapolis is the favorite at the moment given the two potential investor/operator groups and the settled stadium situation, though other hopeful markets such as Sacramento and San Antonio remain in the mix – is situated further west.

In the short term, the fixes are fairly easy. NYCFC and Orlando will slide right into the Eastern Conference next year. Houston will likely return to the Western Conference after moving East to accommodate the arrivals of Portland and Vancouver in 2011. The opportunity to place the Dynamo in the same conference as FC Dallas is simply too tempting to resist for a league so firmly in favor of rivalries. The adjustments would create an 11-team Eastern Conference and a 10-team Western Conference.

The tricky part arises at the next step when Atlanta joins in 2017. There are no simple switches left to make at that stage. Sporting Kansas City sits the furthest west of the remaining Eastern Conference teams. Atlanta possesses some experience in suspending geographic ties (the Falcons played in the NFC West from 1970 to 2001 before the NFL realigned), but MLS won’t separate the members of its expected Southern triangle. And any sort of off-the-board choices – Chicago also sits in the central time zone, for example – create their own trickle-down effects with two further expansion teams on the way.

Adding five teams in such a compressed timeframe requires MLS to devise a careful, cohesive strategy to accommodate all of them without sacrificing the greater good. The involved parties must ponder the potential implications of moving teams between conferences, rifle through the inherent scheduling quirks and weigh more radical ideas to alter the structure more fundamentally as a matter of due diligence.

And those issues relate just to the scheduling concerns. There are more deliberations on tap about ensuring the strength of the player pool during this expansion era (Garber highlighted, as usual, the development of academy programs, the extent of the global talent base and the possibility of amending rule as potential aids) and establishing the desired framework for the tricky CBA negotiations ahead.

There are no facile solutions to any of those quandaries. The amount of work ahead leaves Garber and the rest of the league with little latitude to bask in Atlanta’s excitement. Wednesday offered another landmark moment for MLS, but it is now in the past. The energy must shift quickly to guarantee more celebrations occur as the decade progresses.

Five Points – Week 7

1. Can Portland end its barren run against Real Salt Lake?: This affair at Rio Tinto Stadium offers the Timbers a chance to end their barren run against RSL. Portland hasn’t secured a victory against RSL in its previous 10 attempts in all competitions, including both legs of the Western Conference final and the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup semifinal meeting last season. RSL’s mixture of discipline, precision and strength tends to jolt Portland out of its rhythm. The visitors must find a way to stretch the field horizontally and take their chances when they come in order to end their drought against RSL and snatch their first victory of the campaign.

2. Win some, lose some in Toronto: Reds boss Ryan Nelsen muddled through the 1-0 defeat to Colorado last weekend with a threadbare squad, but he won’t face the same problem ahead of the visit to FC Dallas on Saturday. Steven Caldwell (suspension) and Jonathan Osorio (hamstring) will return to the squad, while Michael Bradley (groin/quadriceps) could also feature if he responds to well to his work this week. The insertion of that trio into the starting XI allows Nelsen to build a cohesive and strong foundation to combat a FCD outfit poised to enjoy most of the possession in Frisco. TFC will need that base to stand strong with Jermain Defoe (hamstring) essentially ruled out until the home game against New England on May 3.

RED BULLS OPEN ACCOUNT

3. New England copes without its defensive rock: Revolution coach Jay Heaps will hope to have José Gonçalves (right quadriceps strain) back in his starting XI before that affair at BMO Field, but the visit to Toyota Park on Saturday will come too quickly for the reigning MLS Defender of the Year. Heaps possesses several options in central defense to replace his captain. The chosen path after Gonçalves limped off in the 2-0 victory over Houston last weekend included inserting Darrius Barnes on the right and shifting Andrew Farrell into the middle. Those successful operating principles might change this weekend if Chris Tierney (left hip irritation) returns in time to feature against the Fire, but the Revs – whether Tierney starts on the left or not – must ensure whatever back four combination they choose produces a cohesive and focused effort for 90 minutes to track the movement of Quincy Amarikwa and Mike Magee appropriately.

4. Can Montréal spring another surprise at Sporting Park?: In the midst of its bright first half last year, the Impact snatched a 2-1 victory in Kansas City. The visitors will harbor a similar objective this time. Sporting enters this match with some vulnerabilities – Uri Rosell’s absence through suspension strips away the home side’s touchstone in possession – and a need to address them in order to prevent Montréal from catching them over the top. Once those concerns are address, the home side should benefit. If Sporting can exert its usual high pressure and interrupt Marco Di Vaio’s service, then the home side should hold serve as expected and sidestep a potential reprisal.

5. Familiar faces reunite: LA Galaxy play Vancouver for the second time in as many weeks. Columbus and D.C. United meet again after the Crew won at RFK Stadium earlier this year. Mauro Rosales hosts his old friends from Seattle in the night cap on Saturday night. Expect the scouting in all three cases to unfold a bit more quickly than it otherwise might.