Last Thursday, Major League Soccer commissioner Don Gaver revealed one of the league’s worst-kept secrets: MLS will expand beyond its previously stated goal of 28 teams beyond the previously stated goal of 28 teams.
Following a leagueboard of governors meeting in Los Angeles, Garber confirmed the new expansion target and also left open the idea for even more growth.
From a financial and relevance perspective, growing as large a national footprint as possible makes sense in a sport where labor costs are relatively low (league-minimum salaries are not even in six figures) and regional rivalry drives fan engagement.
But to accomodate that growth, it seems inevitable the league will eventually have to abandon its current two-conference structure. None of the most prestigious leagues across the world play more than 38 league matches per season. And even when the league reaches 28 teams, MLS’s current format of playing conference teams twice and teams in the other conference once would result in 40 league fixtures.
So what new competitive structures would make sense as MLS grows? Here are a few ideas:
The NFL Model
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The current MLS schedule is 34 matches, just over double the current NFL slate of 16 games. And while there was never any similar moment to the AFL/NFL merger completed in 1970, many MLS observers speak of MLS 1.0 (or original) clubs and more recent MLS 2.0 (or recent expansion) sides.
Using that history as a rough guide, you could separate MLS into two coast-to-coast conferences a la the NFL’s AFC and NFC. (Or if you wanted to go the retro hockey route, you could name the conferences after MLS ownership pioneers Lamar Hunt and Philip Anschutz.)
At 30 teams, each conference could be divided into East, Central and West divisions. Teams would play each team in their division four times, each non-division conference opponent once, and then games against two fo the three divisions in the other conference on a rotating basis for a total of 36 matches.
A potential alignment:
NSC East: New England Revolution, New York Red Bulls, New York City FC, Philadelphia Union, D.C. United
NSC Central: Houston Dynamo, FC Dallas, FC Austin, Orlando City, Inter Miami
NSC West: LAFC, LA Galaxy, San Jose Earthquakes, Sacramento Republic, San Diego (Name TBD)
ASC East: Toronto FC, Montreal Impact, Columbus Crew SC, FC Cincinnati, Chicago Fire
ASC Central: Minnesota United, Sporting Kansas City, St. Louis (Name TBD), Atlanta United, Nashville SC
ASC West: Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders, Vancouver Whitecaps, Colorado Rapids, Real Salt Lake
At 32 teams, you might have four divisions of four teams in each conference. Each team would play division foes four times, other teams in its conference once, and teams in three divisions in the other conference on a rotating basis for a schedule of 36 games.
The NCAA Football Model
Throughout Garber’s tenure, building regional rivalries has been a major priority. And if the league wanted to double down on that strategy, they could build a competitive structure that more resembles college football, where 2/3 to 3/4 of your annual games are played against conference opponents.
Let’s suppose the league expands as far as 32 teams. Instead of sticking with the current East/West alignment, you could divide MLS into mini-leagues of eight teams each on an East/West/North/South alignment. Play each team in your mini-league four times for 28 games. Then play one game against each team from one of the three other leagues on a rotating basis, again finishing with a 36-game schedule.
The European (Ish) Model
Soccer purists often lament there is no promotion and relegation between MLS and the the lower divisions of American and Canadian professional soccer, as exists in most other leagues around the world.
The financial insecurity of such a setup is a non-starter for a league asking expansion owners for a hundreds of millions in league entry fees and infrastructure investments. But maybe that would be different if the promotion and relegation happened within an MLS structure that included revenue sharing.
At 36 teams, MLS could create two 18-team divisions — lets call them MLS 1 and MLS 2 — that play a balanced, home-and-away schedule of 34 games. Each year, the bottom three teams in MLS 1 are relegated to MLS 2, and the top three from MLS 2 come up.
At 48 teams — obviously is some distance in the future away — MLS could essentially double the current competitive structure. MLS 1 and MLS 2 would each have 24 teams total divided into an East and a West, and play 34 games — two each against conference foes and one each against teams in the other conference.
At the end of the season, the bottom team in each conference of MLS 1 would go down, and the top team in MLS 2 would come up. To add some extra spice at season’s end, the second-to-last team in each conference of MLS 1 would play the second-place team of each conference in MLS 2 in a two-leg playoff, with a spot in the top flight on the line.