Now to things that matter.
As you may have heard, Major League Soccer is in the expansion business. Not only are Atlanta United, Minnesota United, and Los Angeles FC coming aboard (and the Miami Beckhams joining somewhere in the wild blue yonder), but MLS has announced plans to expand from 24 to 28 in the next few years. Last week the league received bids from twelve cities vying for one of the expansion franchises.
This post isn’t so much about which cities should get those franchises — although St. Louis, Sacramento, Charlotte, and either Cincinnati or Detroit make the most sense to me. No, this post is about what MLS should look like once expansion happens.
Currently MLS divides its teams into two conferences, Eastern and Western, with regular season schedules weighted toward intra-conference games. The team with the most points at the end of the season gets the Supporters’ Shield, while top teams from each conference compete in playoffs to win the MLS Cup.
Now the problems with this are obvious and fundamental, at least to me (and I’m the one writing this). The Supporters’ Shield is irreparably tainted with unbalanced schedules, and with soccer being a sport historically emphasizing accomplishment over the whole of a season, the crap shoot that is the MLS Cup playoffs becomes the league’s way of Americanizing the most popular sport in the world.
So if MLS wants to expand to 28, I say make plans to eventually get that number to 32. Not immediately. The product is about to be diluted with expansion and you don’t want to shock the system that much. But eventually, get to 32.
Then bust it up.
Divide the leagues in half, MLS and MLS2, sixteen teams apiece.
The regular season for each league would consist of thirty games, home-and-homes with each other team in the league.
The winner of MLS would claim the Supporters’ Shield, and it would mean something because every team in the top domestic league played the same schedule.
The bottom three teams in MLS would be relegated to MLS2. As for MLS2, the top two teams would automatically get promoted and teams 3–6 would do a playoff similar to what the English League Championship does.
All thirty-two teams of MLS and MLS2 would compete in a MLS Cup tournament to be held throughout the year, culminating right after the conclusion of the regular season. The winner would be guaranteed a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League, and perhaps the promotion/relegation system could include a provision that the winner be guaranteed safety from relegation or automatically promoted, raising the stakes of the tournament beyond its English parallel, the EFL Cup.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Open Cup would remain in place for teams in the States, including teams from MLS, USL, NASL, and whatever else U.S. Soccer deems fit. Our version of the FA Cup.
I know MLS is still growing, trying to gain respectability as a major sports league in North America. The good news for them is that plenty of cities are itching to get in on a sport which has grown and continues to grow by leaps and bounds in this country. As a result, expansion fees have skyrocketed. Thus, if I’m Don Garber this is the time for a bold move. I have to think this setup would be more attractive to sports television networks. Of course, they would prefer MLS to MLS2, but in the era of streaming all kinds of possibilities open up.
Anyway, just one man’s thoughts. What do you think about this idea? What would you change?