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Sons of Ben rejoice. Philadelphia was officially announced today as MLS’ sixteenth team (sorry, franchise), with a new 20,000 seater soccer-specific-stadium to be built in Chester, Pa., as part of a “$500 million waterfront development project that will also feature townhomes, apartments, office space, a convention and exposition center, retail space, new streets, greenways and a riverside promenade that will include boat slips.” Boat slips! How far MLS has come.
Good on Philadelphia, and well done to the supporters who helped make it happen. The question is where this expansion takes the league.
Commissioner Don Garber threw St Louis, who had vied for the sixteenth spot, a bone in the press release.
With the announcement of the 16th team, MLS added its sixth team since the start of the 2005 season. Expansion conversations continue with approximately 10 markets throughout the United States and Canada. MLS officials will continue those discussions as the League could feature as many as 18 clubs by 2011.
“As evidenced by our patience in the case of Philadelphia, we will only expand when we believe the circumstances are right,” Garber said. “We continue to seek the essential combination of strong ownership, an appropriate facility controlled by that ownership, and a market with a tradition of supporting the sport. St. Louis is one of the leading candidates we are considering and we are hopeful that all elements will come together soon for the city to join the League.”
Despite Garber’s words, MLS is expanding at a serious pace, raising issues on and off the field.
One question is whether the quality of the players can keep up with this pace of expansion: as the league expands, dozens more roster spots need to be filled, and the quality of the “filler” players in MLS is already low as it stands. Building a league that can appeal to the millions of soccer fans who already exist in the States depends to a degree on the quality of the play.
Raising the salary cap?
The answer, of course, is to raise the salary cap and attract more and better players from abroad. We will surely see less Americans per team in the coming years, though fortunately for the national team, this ought to be of little concern as the total number of Americans in the league won’t necessarily decline. But there certainly aren’t enough good ones sitting in a cupboard somewhere to fill four new teams by 2011 (Seattle, Philadelphia, +2).
Will the salary cap be raised substantially by then? I think so. The collective bargaining agreement between the players’ union and MLS expires next year, giving a window for this to happen. Though the salary cap isn’t directly determined by these negotiations, it would seem to be the right moment to move on it (and while they’re at it, stop paying developmental players a wage that would shame Montgomery Burns).
Given MLS has many new owners now — it welcomed Oscar de la Hoya to Houston just this week — the burden of an increased cap doesn’t fall as hard on one entity, as it would have before on AEG when they owned half the league.
Moreover, expansion itself should help pay for higher salaries. Philadelphia’s “entrance fee” to the league is likely around $30 million, and that seems sure to rise further for the seventeenth and eighteenth teams. The league and all its owners have also started making money out of their commercially successful SUM venture, selling broadcasting rights in the U.S. to events like the World Cup and InterLiga. MLS has been cautious to ensure that the new owners have seriously deep pockets, one reason St Louis haven’t won over the league yet, so new owners like Andell Holdings in Chicago can certainly afford a rise. Unlike football in England, ownership is seriously vetted.
But compared to England, salaries are an amazingly low proportion of the turnover in MLS, especially for those like Toronto who sell-out regularly. Whilst the fetters on finance should be kept on to some degree in order to avoid an NASL-meltdown, to compete with the ever richer European leagues (even England’s second division is now able to poach MLS players financially), the reins will have to be loosened somewhat to avoid stagnation on the field in the coming years.
The question of expansion also brings up all those old chestnuts like whether there will be promotion/relegation (I don’t see owners investing $30 million to buy into a league that it could get stuck in the second tier of), whether there will be a single table and balanced schedule, and so on. My guess is no to all of that, as MLS seems to work on the principle of copying the other major leagues structurally, even as on the field we’re seeing a purer game than originally (no shootouts, for example).
We might even see the conferences broken into divisions at some point. The distances in America also make sense for a geographically carved set-up: with Philadelphia joining, the North-east ought to be a hotbed for rivalries that’ll get fans travelling and adding to the atmosphere. Lets see what the Sons of Ben can do now they finally have an actual team to support.