ATLANTA — MLS will expand to Cincinnati next season and to Miami and Nashville as early as 2020. Austin seems certain to get a team, and probably not at the expense of mistreated Columbus.
That would leave one expansion slot available in getting MLS to its stated goal of 28 markets. On Friday, however, Commissioner Don Garber said he envisions the league growing beyond 28.
“This is a big country,” he said during his annual state of the league address. “There has been so much that has gone on in the last decade or so in this sport, that has been empowering a lot of interested cities across the U.S. and Canada. It really is in the context of what the country will support.”
Garber said MLS is done expanding in Canada, where teams operate in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
But with several U.S. cities interested in bidding for teams — and willing to pay expansion fees exceeding $100 million — the league will not necessarily put the brakes on additional markets.
“We will grant the 28th team in the next 12 months and then have to decide if we want to go forward, beyond 28 teams,” he said. “That is a discussion that is taking place.”
The next board of governors meeting is Thursday in New York.
“I don’t anticipate an announcement, but there’s no doubt in my mind we can support having more than 28 teams,” Garber said. “No doubt in my mind.”
Prospective cities include Sacramento, St. Louis, Detroit and Phoenix, among others.
Twelve years ago, MLS was operating with 12 teams. There are now two teams in each of the New York and Los Angeles metro areas. Austin would become the third city in Texas with a team, joining Dallas and Houston.
Columbus investor Anthony Precourt has threatened to move the Crew, a 1996 founding member, to the Texas capital. With resistance in central Ohio, MLS seems likely to keep a team in Columbus under new management (and with a new downtown stadium) and allow Precourt to start from scratch in Austin.
Also of note:
The playoff format: MLS is eyeing changes to the playoff format, starting next season. Under the proposals, which still must be approved by the board of governors, higher seeds would receive true home-field advantage by hosting a single-game playoff throughout the postseason.
Currently, only the four first-round matches and MLS Cup are decided in one match. The conference semifinals and finals are two legs, with each team hosting one game.
“My guess is we’ll probably end up with something a little bit different than we have now,” Garber said. "The idea here is to continually work on making the regular season become more and more important. So winning in March is as important as winning in September and October.
“The playoff format we are evaluating is really going to place a strong emphasis on the regular season.”
Women’s soccer: Garber is encouraging MLS owners to consider investing in National Women’s Soccer League teams, if such a move makes financial sense.
“There is no reason, if the market can support it, that we wouldn’t want our teams to have more inventory in those stadiums,” he said.
Currently, there is MLS-NWSL synergy in Portland, Salt Lake City, Orlando and Houston. The NWSL team in Chicago plays at Toyota Park, home to MLS’s Fire, but the teams have separate investors.
D.C. United has contemplated making an offer for the Washington Spirit and moving it to Audi Field from Maryland SoccerPlex. Los Angeles FC, which includes Mia Hamm as an investor, has been long-rumored to be planning a women’s team.
In the big picture, Garber said, “we need to believe in the soccer-nation thing."
“While I am very proud of the fact that Major League Soccer has been a big driver of some of the successes that have gone on in the sport, I do think we could use some of our collective wisdom to grow the women’s game,” he said. "We would like to see the whole [soccer] enterprise here in North America grow.”
The NWSL completed its sixth season this past fall with nine teams. Previous attempts to sustain women’s pro soccer lasted three seasons apiece (WUSA and WPS).
Playing aboard: The decision by some MLS academy players to join clubs abroad instead of signing homegrown contracts “is a big issue for our league,” Garber said.
MLS teams maintain the league rights to such players but cannot prevent them from pursuing opportunities elsewhere.
“While I don’t know that it’s entirely about young players chasing their dreams [by signing abroad] as it is international clubs chasing our young players, that is something we need to wrap our collective minds around and figure out how we manage that in a way that justifies our owners investing" in their youth academies, Garber said.
He added that American soccer should begin participating in training and solidarity compensation; this is when youth development organizations, whether aligned with a pro league or independent, receive a share of a transfer fee involving a player they helped mold. Citing legal complications, the U.S. Soccer Federation does not enforce the FIFA rules on the matter.
A careful balance: As MLS matures, Garber believes the league should become more active in selling players abroad — an approach in which clubs profit from a player’s rising value and, in theory, invest the returns in fresh talent.
Notable transfers this year included Vancouver Whitecaps forward Alphonso Davies to Bayern Munich and New York Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams to RB Leipzig. Columbus Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen is reportedly moving to Manchester City and Atlanta United attacker Miguel Almiron is eyeing Newcastle.
Several European teams are monitoring D.C. teenager Chris Durkin.
Garber said: "In the world of global soccer, players get sold. In those countries, they don’t have to worry about building a league; those leagues are already built. We have this careful balance: How do you retain your stars and how do you create consistency? We have a different dynamic [but] we’re part of the global game.
“We have been buying for so long. As we’ve been going through the analysis, it’s hard to justify that investment and the investment we have to make in player development [as well]. We’ve got to have something that turns this model around or else it’s going to be unsustainable.”