News

On Gehenna; Or the Hell Outside MLS’ Expansion Gates

by on 2 February 2017

The recent fury of MLS Expansion activity has drawn quite a bit of excited comment. However, a troubling question lingers in the background: what happens when MLS has finished expanding?

In Hebrew, the word is “Gehenna.” Eventually, it turned into hell, but the place of suffering was also a real, geographic place: the Valley of Hinnom. It was the wilderness, the chaos; a foil for the orderly city of God, Jerusalem. And to be cast outside the gates of the city was to be condemned to the place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Twelve clubs submitted bids this week for the “final” four expansion spots that will be awarded in MLS. The chosen bids will pay their $150-200 million toll and be rewarded with the safety of being inside MLS’ city gates.

Modern soccer is the thing of billionaires and the price that American soccer fans pay for being able to see the highest quality of soccer possible is accepting this fact.

What’s inside those gates is not the problem; modern soccer is the thing of billionaires and the price that American soccer fans pay for being able to see the highest quality of soccer possible is accepting this fact. That other rich men and owners of existing teams want to be part of the MLS juggernaut is not surprising in the least.

There will come a time in the near future, however, when the gates of MLS’ Jerusalem will have filled to the brim. Moving beyond 28 teams will strain the league’s momentum by diluting media attention spans and creating more and more schedule work-arounds that will fail to get anywhere near balanced schedules.

But what will become of those clubs left on the outside? Rich owners have swept into some of these markets, promising stadiums and the highest level of soccer. Will they simply walk away from their clubs when they find themselves stuck in the USL? Will NASL become a haven for these disgruntled owners, leading to another era of seeking to challenge MLS to force a merger?

American soccer is in an impossible bind right now. We owe a great deal of the sport’s explosion in popularity to MLS. The cartel tactics of working together and pooling risk has created a top league in a matter of two decades, something almost completely unheard of. Teams and owners may lose money in MLS, but team value grows amidst the red ink. There are elements of the business model that can and should change, but owners want in because it is the first truly stable and dominant soccer league in the US and Canada.

As for the other leagues? The NASL is just lifting itself off the mat, but it has been pulled at the seams by its chief asset: its teams’ independence. The league will tout the freedom of its owners to spend and act as they choose, but this leads to teams spending wildly and irresponsibly as other teams scrape by in survival. The USL has grown exponentially, boosted in part by reserve teams and owners who see it as a stepping stone to MLS.

In some cases, crowds have been sold on the promise of MLS: Sacramento, Cincinnati, and San Antonio have all, at times, put their path toward MLS front-and-center as part of their appeal to fans. Will those fans disappear? Or, as in the case of Sacramento, will we see the vital fan bases cannibalized and exploited once the MLS prize is in sight?

What, then, do we do to avert the coming disaster? There are no easy solutions, that much is sure, so ignore your local bedsheet pro/rel warriors. Peter Wilt’s remarkably exhaustive discussion on promotion and relegation offers some ways out. Others have floated the idea of MLS expanding to 40 teams and creating two leagues with promotion and relegation between them.

In 2010, the USSF attempted to solve one of the largest problems with American soccer by instituting rigid guidelines for ownership. Something like 80% of lower division clubs failed and went out of existence in the two decades prior. Those new guidelines ensured that owners had a certain amount of financial backing so they were fully prepared to absorb the inevitable annual losses.

While the fail-rate of lower-division clubs has waned, there continues to be annual upheaval among owners who fail to pay bills or who tuck and run at the first sign of red ink.

But this has simply not worked. While the fail-rate of lower-division clubs has waned, there continues to be annual upheaval among owners who fail to pay bills or who tuck and run at the first sign of red ink. Take the Ottawa Fury, for example, whose annual losses ended up being less than originally projected, but still decamped to the USL to save money.

What is clear, though, is that the USSF has been woefully absent in the process of shoring up the security and future of American soccer. Sunil Gulati and the federation helped secure the temporary futures of the NASL and USL last December. However, their solution was remarkably short-sighted. Neither league will likely enter 2018 without needing some sort of waiver for Division Two status and the USSF seems unwilling to hold anyone accountable. Moreover, how long will there simply be two second divisions? Is this really a sustainable solution?

This essay can offer no real solutions, because, to be honest, it’s a problem too large for one brain. The USSF needs to put together a comprehensive plan for the future and it will have to include twisting arms, even that of MLS. The federation needs to find a way to begin actual cooperation between the leagues and that includes eventual revenue sharing with SUM.

When the NASL seemed on its deathbed, some observers cheered its passing, believing that we might move into some Fukuyamian “End of History” era for US and Canadian soccer.

When the NASL seemed on its deathbed, some observers cheered its passing, believing that we might move into some Fukuyamian “End of History” era for US and Canadian soccer. These people saw the NASL as a gadfly, making trouble where there could be peace and cooperation. And if USSF believes NASL can’t play nice, then so be it, but eventually USL owners who saw the league as a stepping stone to MLS will cease kowtowing to the first division and the USL may become oppositional.

There is no utopian peace as long as those outside the MLS gates want to get in. MLS has conducted its expansion smartly and effectively in the last few years. However, it’s time that the USSF convenes a committee to avert the coming disaster. Whatever plan they come up with may not be implemented for another decade, but without a top-down diktat from the federation we will start to see a quick return to the days of lower division teams failing at ridiculous rates. The weeping and gnashing of teeth will see these rich owners in the lower divisions either continue to use leagues as battlegrounds against MLS or simply walk away from these communities, leaving them without teams.


FiftyFive.One is now on Patreon. Do you like the independent coverage of soccer news from Minnesota and beyond that FiftyFive.One offers? Please consider becoming a patron.

Tags: , , ,