I’m not sure how you felt, but I reveled in watching Real Salt Lake come from behind to beat expansion side LAFC. My happiness isn’t rooted into any special passion for the Utah club, as it has never been a team I’ve had much time for. Moreover, I was pleased to see this year’s blessed and favored new boys sent home early. For the second year in a row, Major League Soccer has had an expansion side blow through its schedule and find itself in the playoffs. These superpowered and popular sides — I’m speaking of Atlanta United and LAFC — have become league darlings despite the fact their success throws the usual league parity off balance.
I hear you, I’m an Orlando City supporter, and this is all sour grapes. Sure, I’ll own that bias, but I’ll also own a lifetime of interest in soccer in the United States. I am desperate for MLS to continue the success it has had and eager to never see anything like the freewheeling money parade that was NASL ever come back into the fold.
Major League Soccer’s nearly obsessive framework of single entity and parity drive many in the United States absolutely mad. The Arsenal and Bayern Munich fans among us would tell you that opening the floodgates to super clubs in the States will craft a better game and draw the best to our fields. There is a belief that clubs like LAFC are primed for the future and ready to spend spend big in an effort to cultivate the game.
The problem is that while the league has been toasting the success of LAFC and Atlanta United, the rest of the family is struggling. The fiascoes include the need for #SaveTheCrew, the insistence to still move forward in Austin despite the city never being on the expansion list, the lack of a soccer stadium for NYCFC or even the plan for one, and sagging attendance at legacy clubs like the Chicago Fire and Colorado Rapids among many others.
Also, brand new clubs shouldn’t be that good. If a club can win a championship in its first year, you’ve obviously overpowered the expansion process and given an unequal advantage to the new club. LAFC losing in the first round, much like Atlanta in its first year and NYCFC did in its second year, says that at least some of the integrity of the playoff system still exists.
My concern lies in the history of the NASL and its addiction to expansion. The league fueled a soccer boom in the 1970s and into the 1980s. Beyond the excitement for the New York Cosmos super club, the league drove excitement through expansion across the United States and as far as Hawaii. The opening and closing of clubs was, at the time, dizzying as the hype train came and went through various towns. A lot of what the NASL did was fantastic, as it laid foundations for the future and certainly a few teams are still in existence today with old NASL DNA.
MLS and its founding principles exist as a rebuttal to that league and the general instability that has plagued soccer in the United States since the late 1800s. The anxiety that it should never become a league that lives and dies on expansion and the success or failure of those teams should be the first waking thought and the last thing on the mind of Don Garber every day.
I’ve been pleased on a very personal level about MLS expansion into Orlando, and as a former resident of Atlanta very pleased for the arrival of that club. I think Minnesota is prone for long-term success, and genuinely think Cincinnati and Nashville will add something interesting to the league. At the same time, I have to feel it is time to pull back on the reins a bit. Let the USL become the harbinger of soccer in new markets for now.
MLS needs a new period, and new leadership, to work on stabilizing the league. I’d love to see the same level of effort given to hyping clubs like LAFC put into celebrating the legacy of the league's original clubs and preaching the values that will build soccer into the future and not risk it by celebrating this year’s wonder team.