Expansion and the MLS Meta
- Jason Davis
In 2011, after Seattle and Philly and Portland and Vancouver and Montreal and the wave that came before them (yes, San Jose counts) and all of the talk of candidates and fees and ownership groups and stadium plans and color schemes and whether names should be “historical” (since 1975!) or “euro” or plain old American city-and-nickname, I’m tired of expansion. Or, rather, I’m not tired of expansion, I’m over it as a major part of Major League Soccer’s future, which means I’m over writing about it. Actually, I’m almost certain that my attention has shifted because there are now enough teams and enough stability that MLS has hardened around the edges and has the consistency of a “real” league.
But the expansion talk continues, whether I remain actively engaged or not (my interest, surprisingly, has no bearing on the rolling expansion train or the discussion surrounding it…who knew). The country is big, MLS will continue to be in the growth phase – in one area or fifty – forever, and there is STILL no team in the Southeast. Oh, and MLSHQ continues to publicly covet another franchise in New York, either because they themselves are sick of having to trek over to Jersey to see a game, or…no, that’s probably it. I hear the PATH trains are a disaster.
The latest development in the expansion story is that MLS has no immediate plans to grow beyond the 20 clubs the league will have once Montreal joins in 2012 and someone in New York who was lucky enough to have never met Bernie Madoff finds $100 million to invest. This has come as a shock to some because stopping at 20 only makes sense if MLS is A. retaining the balanced schedule (they’re not) B. tired of expansion fees (doubtful) or C. convinced that there are no more cities ready for professional soccer (maybe, but unlikely). Suddenly everything we know about MLS 2.0 is threatened by public statements of conservatism. If MLS isn’t expanding, what does that mean exactly?
Richard Whittall, the newly minted editor at The Score’s Footy Blog and a top bloke, lays it out pretty simply in a manner I might have had I thought to tackle the story first and wasn’t tied up doing other things:
First, no more rotating conversation about viable American (or Canadian) soccer markets, so that MLS can deal with working with its existing markets, and shoring up some of the weaker ones. It gives a sense of fixed identity to the league?this is it, for better or for worse. A little familiarity goes a long way, and as Lorne Michaels apparently said once: ?the longer you?re here, the longer you?re here.? Halting expansion seals off MLS and gives the league a sense of permanence.
Richard’s point about too much of the coverage of MLS being “meta” is a good one, and although it cuts me personally as this blog was launched to tackle many of the very meta issues he identifies, pushing topics like “who’s next” to the periphery is crucial to the graduation of MLS from novelty level to full and tenured member of major professional sports leagues. The sooner MLS can be just about the games, the players, and the coaches (with the occasional distraction of the latest best-small-soccer-stadium-in-the-world opening), the better. Permanence isn’t awarded after a certain number of years or teams or even fans is reached; it’s an entirely subjective characteristic that only takes hold as a widespread feeling at some indeterminable point when the greater culture finally takes the league’s existence for granted. That might require an older generation of sportswriters/editors/talking heads to recede into their retirements where they can’t influence an easily manipulated public, or it might just be something that comes when MLS pauses to tidy up the house already built instead of worrying about the next new addition.
Which, judging by the attendance issues in Columbus and Dallas and the (still) unresolved stadium situation in DC (among other things), MLS should do. The NBC TV contract represents an opportunity to buckle down and generate genuine interest in the sport beyond the hardcore locals it has already attracted. Expansion should and must be commensurate with the ability of teams to find and pay for decent talent. That probably means stopping at 20 teams, at least for now.
One less meta issue to bat around and speculate on means less fodder American soccer blogs that can’t help themselves. And that’s a good thing. MLS still, and probably will for the foreseeable future, feels like more of a counterculture movement than a actual part of the fabric of sport in the United States and Canada. That might give us a greater feeling of solidarity and uniqueness as fans, but it remains a barrier to MLS becoming the legitimate and accepted league it hopes to be.
As long as we’re talking about the way the league is run, where it might pop up next, how to pay expensive names to play here, etc., etc. more than we talk about the narratives playing out on the field, MLS won’t just be niche, it will feel ephemeral.