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MLS Expansion Involves Learning From the Past

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There is still a path for lower division teams to reach MLS.

Image courtesy of Orlando City SC

When most professional sports leagues expand, it can be difficult to guess which cities will receive teams. The leagues typically keep their decisions close to their chest. However, one league that’s easily predictable is Major League Soccer. Oftentimes, the groups that are most successful are those that have learned from the past.

When you think of groups looking to bring an expansion team into existence, you might think of crazy displays and bold statements. That was the case in the 1980s in Orlando when former Philadelphia 76ers General Manager Pat Williams drew NBA interest to Central Florida. In MLS, it’s more about taking certain steps toward reaching your goal. The league wants teams to fulfill certain requirements before they can be seriously considered, especially if they’re an existing team in a smaller market.

In the late 2000s, MLS decided to move away from creating brand new teams and started promoting from the United Soccer League. It started when a group from Seattle was awarded a spot in MLS. That group included Adrian Hanauer, who led the USL’s Seattle Sounders. After expansion was announced, the Seattle MLS group held a naming contest. The most popular choice for a team name wasn’t one of the choices, but a write-in vote, the Sounders. In an unusual move, MLS learned quickly from this and realized that history matters to fans.

The following expansion teams were other successful USL sides, the Portland Timbers, Montreal Impact, and Vancouver Whitecaps. Eventually, the league moved away from this a little, putting a second team in New York, replacing the second team in Los Angeles, and placing a team in Atlanta. But there is still a place for teams looking to be promoted to the country’s top division.

When Phil Rawlins created Orlando City SC, it was always his goal to reach MLS. This is in spite of the fact that MLS didn’t really want a team in Orlando. MLS Commissioner Don Garber saw it as a small city that wouldn’t support professional soccer. While the commissioner was proven wrong during the team’s USL days, it was another team that helped Rawlins reach his eventual goal.

In an attempt to learn what needed to be done to reach MLS, Rawlins sought the advice of someone who had done it before him. The Englishman visited Portland several times to speak with Timbers CEO Merritt Paulson. The businessman bought the Timbers and the local minor league baseball team, which he subsequently sold, and lifted them to new heights.

When Rawlins looked at Portland, he saw a city very similar to Orlando. It was a smaller market in the eyes of sports leagues that only had an NBA team at the top level. Rawlins learned from Paulson and examined every aspect of Portland’s MLS operation. While certainly not the only thing that led to Orlando City’s expansion, it had a major impact. On Nov. 13, 2013, Orlando was announced as the league’s 21st team.

With Orlando elevated from the USL to MLS, prospective owners now had another group to look up to. And it wasn’t too long before Rawlins was sought after for advice.

In 2012, a group of businessmen started a new team in California, the Sacramento Republic. The new USL side started play in 2014 and was a runaway success from the start. Like Portland and Orlando, this group had its eyes on MLS and knew who to reach out to in order to achieve its dream.

Led by Warren Smith, the group reached out to Rawlins for advice. Sacramento was a city much like Portland and Orlando. It was not a major market and the only major sports team in the city was an NBA one. While it took longer than Orlando’s wait, mainly because of how popular MLS expansion became, Smith and the folks in Sacramento reached their goal with the help of Rawlins and Orlando City.

Several teams have popped up since these expansion sides were announced and have attempted a similar path. While some of the future expansion teams are brand new, there is still a pathway for existing teams in smaller markets to reach the league. As we’ve seen from Orlando and Sacramento, finding a mentor and learning from the past is how you gain entrance into this exclusive club.