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MLS Expansion Likely to Continue Despite Challenges

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USA TODAY

 

Less than 10 years have passed since Toronto FC made its debut in Major League Soccer, yet as North America's primary league heads to Canada's biggest city for Saturday's championship game, it is virtually unrecognizable from when it first arrived.

Toronto, which will seek its first MLS Cup title when it hosts the Seattle Sounders, became MLS' 13th team in 2007, with its investment group paying an expansion fee of $10million. Seattle became team No.15 two years later.

As of next season, MLS will be 22 teams strong, climbing to 23 by 2018, and has a group of cities and investment groups itching to hand over checks of $100 million and above to join the show.

And thus the league and its hierarchy have to decide how far, and how big, to go. One option is to keep growing until it has a similar number of teams as other American leagues, such as the NBA, NHL, MLB and NFL, which fall between 30-32. Another would be to pause and stay closer in number to most international soccer leagues, which rarely stretch beyond 20 teams.

The former option is far more likely.

Commissioner Don Garber has an eye on continued growth, up to 28 teams at least. Atlanta and Minnesota are set to come in next season and will be joined by LAFC, a second Los Angeles franchise, in 2018. A further place is held for a Miami project fronted by David Beckham that has run into political trouble and is no certainty to get off the ground. MLS also has well-funded and publicly supported potential applications from cities such as Sacramento, Tampa and Cincinnati.

With a mass of global soccer options available for domestic TV viewers, MLS sometimes appears in danger of getting lost in the shuffle. However, continued growth in the league's reach and quality can only be considered a success, worthy of the attention of the American sports audience.

Years ago, it was feared that too much expansion would dilute the quality of the product, yet better salaries have brought about an influx of accomplished international players and persuaded several leading Americans, such as Toronto's Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, to return from abroad.

The average league salary is more than $300,000, a long way removed from 2007, when the league minimum was $12,000.

The ongoing ability to attract a solid standard of player from abroad will be a critical factor as MLS seeks to build upon its momentum. Not only do the imports enhance the quality of play, they also give young American players the opportunity to benefit from their expertise.

As the league ages, its story lines gather more significance and, either way, MLS is guaranteed a good narrative this weekend. Toronto has built a staunch local fan base but has been historically inept on the field, with its first playoff appearance coming last year.

Bradley, the U.S. captain, and Altidore earned criticism for failing to make the grade in Europe before coming back to MLS and raking in huge salaries in Toronto. Bradley is getting $6.5 million and Altidore $4.8 million. A victory Saturday would go some way toward vindicating their decision and Toronto's financial faith.

On the Seattle side, the Sounders have the most ferocious and loyal support in the league but, despite having made the playoffs in every season of their existence, will be appearing in their first final. Their best-known player, Clint Dempsey, saw his season end because of a heart condition but will be a nervous onlooker in what promises to be a compelling final.

MLS still has challenges to conquer as the end of its 21st season approaches. Television figures are far from booming, and the recent rise of the Chinese Super League provides a rival option for European or South American players seeking a new challenge.

Yet MLS is here, still fearless and showing no sign of slowing.

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December 9, 2016
 
 
 

 

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