MLS growth needs cautious approach

BY Kyle McCarthy • August 1, 2013

Any glimpse to the promising future in MLS inevitably prompts a look at the checkered past. Years of setbacks and struggles predated the ample strides made over the past few years and provided several cautionary tales about fostering and managing success in the proper fashion.

MLS commissioner Don Garber evoked those demons when he announced the league expects to add four more teams by 2020 during halftime of the MLS All-Star Game on Wednesday night. Visions of the first version of the NASL (not the ambitious, reformed second division waiting to welcome back the New York Cosmos this weekend), its rapid expansion and its subsequent demise inevitably crop up when the idea of increasing the league to 24 teams hits the table.

Those fears are based on apprehension rather than fact. MLS operates on firmer footing with its considerable financial backing and its stable infrastructure. The league will not disintegrate and disappear in a country where soccer increases in stature with each passing year, though it must continue to improve the standard of play to make further inroads. And yet Garber appreciates and understands the concerns in some corners when the league sets out its case for further expansion.

“We have to go about it the right way,” Garber said on Tuesday afternoon prior to outlining the expansion strategy. “We are always mindful of the ghosts of the NASL. As long as I am commissioner – because I grew up with them in the business – I will never forget that.”

Garber and the Board of Governors plan to widen the league's footprint judiciously. MLS outlined an extensive list of criteria it plans to follow – including community and fan support, financial clout, location and stadium plans – as it plots its course. The days of accepting prospective expansion bids based solely on economic strength and any semblance of a stadium solution ended long ago. A complex web of factors now dictates whether a potential candidate warrants a place at the table.

“I think we have to be careful not to expand for expansion's sake,” Garber said. “We have to make sure the product can support the dilution of our player pool, the expanded number of jobs. We have to make sure we have the capacity to be able to handle it from a business perspective. We have to make sure we get the ownership, the stadium and the market right. But, so far, we've had success in this area. I think we'll go about it carefully and have continued success.”

The philosophy set forth to expand the geographic footprint of the league will likely bring MLS back to the site of its most painful setback. The league pulled out of Florida entirely in 2002 after clubs in Miami and Tampa failed to generate the external investment, the interest and the revenue required to maintain their place in an economically threatened business.

MLS will likely return to the area at some point over the next few years with groups in Orlando and Miami among the frontrunners for one of the four available slots. The shadow of the Fusion and the Mutiny still lingers, but Orlando City SC president Phil Rawlins contends the current landscape now creates an opportunity for properly backed teams to succeed in a market where previous MLS sides and other professional teams have stumbled.

“I think the key to the question is the word you just used, which is now," Rawlins said during an interview with FOX Soccer on Wednesday. “Now is a very different time than then when those two teams folded. It's easy to see that the league is in a very, very different place today than it was then. That's one of the big keys. We have to pay respect to the job Major League Soccer done. They've done a tremendous job growing the league, growing the sport, growing the brand. It's in a very different place.”

Orlando hopped to the front of the queue by following the model established by Montréal, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver and laying the groundwork through success in the lower leagues. Rawlins moved his former club in Austin to Orlando after purchasing the rights to do so from the USL and watched as the city embraced its new team with open arms when it took the field in 2011.

By developing a deep connection with a fervent, robust and vibrant soccer community (including 8,000 or so fans per game, 4,000 season ticket holders and two major supporters' groups) and establishing the necessary infrastructure to rise from its current station in USL Pro, Orlando captured the attention of MLS officials. Rawlins forged a lasting partnership with Flavio Augusto da Silva to ensure the proper resources and positioned his club as a viable candidate when MLS finally shifted its attention away from New York.

The introduction of New York City FC in May paved the way for MLS to consider its future in other markets. Da Silva and Rawlins presented their case to the Board of Governors on Wednesday morning in a bid to join NYCFC on the field in 2015. The club must sort out its stadium situation quickly – the Florida Legislature declined to pass a bill to potentially contribute $30 million in tax money to build a $100 million ground in May, but the venerable Citrus Bowl could serve as an interim venue after the completion of a $200 million renovation if the adjusted $85 million proposal eventually succeeds – to persuade the league to follow such an accelerated time line, though.

“We're very excited, we're positive and optimistic,” da Silva said. “We believe that a few pieces that are hard to put in place will be done in the next two or three months.”

If those concerns dissipate, then Orlando will maintain its place at the head of the line. Miami – perhaps with David Beckham and his equity-generating $25 million investment option in tow – stands out as a potential companion to fill the void in the currently barren Southeast. More cities – including frequently linked locales like Atlanta, Minneapolis, Sacramento, San Antonio and St. Louis – could emerge as potential contenders as the process continues and the stakes increase.

No one comprehends the importance of a measured approach quite like Garber does. The instructive missteps over the years chart a cautious road for the future. MLS will extend itself significantly over the next few years. It must do so wisely to elude the haunting problems of the past and sustain its growth well into the future.