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For MLS Expansion, 27 Is The Magic Number Garber & Co. Continues To Disregard

What a wild two months it has been for the next (and final) wave of expansion in Major League Soccer. The recent surge of headlines has been a welcome sighting; the league office had gone radio silent on the topic for far too long. If you can believe it, the awarding of Nashville SC as a future franchise is already coming up on its one-year anniversary. 

The most contemporary piece on the subject — team number 24 going to FC Cincinnati — turns six months old next week. It sure feels like just yesterday, but time flies when there is nothing else verifiable to report. Until early September, that Cincinnati announcement sat on the "Recent News" tab of MLS expansion sites collecting dust. Even the most speculative bloggers were in wait-and-see mode. Forecasting any further seemed futile until a deadline for the next batch of proposals was presented.   

The only other expansion story of 2018 came out in January, when David Beckham's South Florida endless soccer quest mercifully reached a finish line.

In case you've been living under a rock, here's a refresher on that timeline. Built into the MLS contract he signed as a player in 2007 (when the 30 year-old English superstar transferred from Real Madrid to the Los Angeles Galaxy), Beckham negotiated an open-ended ownership stake in a future expansion team in the U.S. professional league. He agreed to a price ceiling of $25 million for the franchise fee; the going rate for such a club at that present value. 

Note: Major League Soccer is a single-entity corporation, meaning Beckham — and all other "owners" leaguewide — are formally called investor-operators. The term owners will be used consistently throughout, however. It paints a fairly accurate depiction of the role each plays within a franchise, and is more understood in the sports vernacular. 

By 2013, the midfielder had retired and his focus shifted coasts to life in the front office; selecting Miami as the ideal setting to write the next chapter in his soccer career. One year prior, Montreal had come into the league. Three years later, it was time for Orlando and a "New York" club that actually competes within the city (and state) it represents. 2017 ushered in Minnesota along with Atlanta. This season provided us with a new second franchise in Los Angeles. For Beckham, as stadium plan after stadium plan fell through, a matter of "when and not if" began to reverse its course. 

Once Nashville was agreed upon, it was fair to wonder: Was this Miami thing ever really going to happen? 23 names had been formally called and none of them were Beckham's. With cities across the country falling over each other to claim one of the final openings, the official vacancy was a little murky. What was MLS commissioner Don Garber going to do if that market collapsed under its own weight? He had more than enough qualified candidates at his disposable if Miami couldn't get its act together. 

Thankfully, all those doomsday scenarios were quelled at the open of the calendar year. Miami will indeed happen; that much was confirmed. But the subsequent details were slow to roll in. 

It was mid-August before the world first caught a glimpse of the club's crest, thanks to an online Trademark Office leak. In case you missed my previous article, something about that iconography looked suspiciously familiar. Regardless, I was grateful for the exposé. It meant the expansion iceberg on the horizon was beginning to melt; there was something substantive surrounding the growth of MLS to talk about. September 5 made it all official.  

Of course we still don't have a definitive stadium location or financial plan, but after nearly six years in the works, we were finally given a name and start date. "Inter Miami CF" (Club Internacional de Futbol Miami) will join the previously-stated Nashville franchise as Major League Soccer's 25th and 26th clubs — ready for play in 2020.

Coincidentally(?), that Nashville club buttoned up its stadium deal on the very same September day as Inter's coming-out party. The expectation was that these incidents would open up the flood gates. In no time, we would be trending toward 2016 levels of expansion action in the news. You see, with each round of this cockamamie process, when those on the inside publicly shore up loose ends (logos, stadium votes passing, personnel acquisitions), a mini panic among those on the outside is created. These press releases are reminders that the newer entities are indeed for real, not going to falter, and the limited seating at the restaurant just got harder to reserve.  

It's as if seeing updates from Cincinnati, Miami, and Nashville makes potential franchise ownership groups self-conscious. We can't fall off Garber's radar. The result is a cluster of boiler plate statements that look like this: “Major League Soccer has indicated that [insert city] Football Club continues to be in consideration for one of the [insert number] remaining expansion spots.” They are now predictable enough to set your watch to. I stumbled across another one out of Charlotte the other day. 

The thought process: Tell the world that the prettiest girl in school called you last night. With hilarious certainty, it will make every other suitor go public with a similar made-up story. Gotta keep up with the Joneses; not that any of it has any bearing on how important selections will be made. And that's where we are. Don Garber has all the power and multi-millionaires are the nervous ones vying for his affection. He has delivered no timetable for the next batch of decisions, so everyone must sweat it out together. 

Seeing this play out a few times now, the next moves on the chess board have become easier to anticipate. One of the expansion hopefuls will reintroduce itself to the world, complete with re-energized interest, financial updates, and phrases such as "now more than ever." 

After that first club's progress report is delivered to the media, all others typically follows suit — as if not doing so would somehow be viewed as a diminished internal belief in the cause. Silence signifies troubles to supporters. Bust out those scarves, would-be soccer owners, the dog-and-pony presser will be on the local news tonight. 

The city that kicked off this year's "We're still here and committed" tour was an absolute shocker. On October 9, the dead-on-the-vine bid out of St. Louis was officially back to try again. This time around, the point person was introduced as Carolyn Kindle-Betz — the highly-respected and philanthropic heir to the Taylor family (Enterprise Holdings) fortune. The transition away from a weaselly, pseudo-government official was a wise call. The city doesn't need fleeced for the third time in four years over a tax-payer-funded pro stadium. 

This segues to the other major alteration in the new proposal: A privately-funded stadium plan. In today's sports business climate, this can only be viewed as a huge victory for the common man. It's never easy telling owners "If you want it as bad you say, you'd pay for it yourself." It is the accepted practice for anyone purchasing nearly anything in this world. This should be no different if that wealthy buyer is providing a civic institution for citizens. Standing up against charity for millionaires takes resolve; residents have to be okay with not having a franchise as the only other option if an owner says "No thanks." I'm really happy the bid came back to St. Louis and even happier it came back with better people, agreeable to these terms.  

100% private was something the original MLS2STL task force claimed was an impossibility. "It cannot be done without contributions from the public" was an infamous lie from then-chairman Dave Peacock. Ultimately, comments like that placed an $80M bond issue on the city's April 4, 2017 ballot (which failed) and placed him on the sidelines for this newest MLS attempt.   

When the dust settled on the public vote, St. Louis' chances looked over for good. Justifiably so, other hopeful cities celebrated when their task force packed up its tents. Ostensibly, this was America's unofficial Soccer Capital acting as its own worst enemy — clearing the path for a bid thief to step in. Much to the chagrin of an Indianapolis or Raleigh-Durham, St. Louis is not only still alive, but already back with the lead group. We'll have to see if this hare can overcome its self-inflicted deficit and finish first in the race it was favored to win. In any event, the repackaged MLS4theLOU is a laudable recovery effort in so many ways. Among them is the potential for the league's first woman-owned franchise. In every sense, "4" > "2"

Having St. Louis back in the conversation was a great story to kick off the season of MLS expansion hysteria. Three days later came an even bigger headline that sent shockwaves through the entire league

For the first documented instance in American sports history, the fans (David) had claimed victory over an owner (Goliath) — in a power struggle over uprooting a professional team. The news appears to be corroborated by trusted sources; enough for me to joyfully shout, with reasonable certainty: the Columbus Crew will be staying put

It was no secret that Precourt Sports Ventures (PSV) wanted its franchise moved to Austin, Texas. The group's chairman, Anthony Precourt, had become public enemy number one in Columbus (and beyond) for his childish handling of a team in limbo. He aimed to uproot one of Major League Soccer's charter clubs a thousand miles away — to play in shiny new digs on land his company already negotiated to develop. When Precourt initially purchased the club from the Hunt Family, he cleverly worked in a relocation clause to the contract. If certain business metrics were not met, within the first five years, he would be free to explore other geographic options. And the league office approved this language. The whole ordeal was a "Hey Art Modell, hold my beer" approach. 

Ironically, the slim hope for Crew retention hung on a court decision stemming from Modell's Cleveland Browns departure. Despite legislation working against him, Precourt still possessed the upper hand on doing with his franchise as he pleased. And he had history on his side. Over the past two centuries, professional sports franchise owners were undefeated in having their relocation wishes realized. To say the least, it looked bleak for Columbus Crew SC remaining in Ohio.

Modern professional sports have become increasingly hostage-like: "Give me [a billionaire] your public handout, or I'm leaving to a place where people will." Crew supporters did what has become expected of citizens facing this seemingly-annual situation. They flooded town hall meetings, hosted rallies with signs carrying witty burns and hashtags. But was their real optimism? What grass-roots movement — of similar cause and resources — could anyone point to and say it worked in stopping a team from leaving town? Typically, these big businessmen are as unobstructed by supporters' efforts as, I don't know, fifteen Mayflower moving trucks plowing through a group of bugs on the road. 

With all that, this storyline appears to somehow have the happiest of endings. The folks behind #SaveTheCrew may have gotten the underdogs on the scoreboard in the battle of Fans vs. Owners Wedded to Money Over the Feelings of Locals (OWMOFL). Precourt appears set to sell the team to a group led by Jimmy Haslam, current owner of the Browns, who intends to keep the Crew in MAPFRE Stadium. Good for me and most of my extended family (Crew fans since Day 1), better for the league, and best for fans in all towns and all sports. 

But what does it mean for the rest of the expansion clubs awaiting Garber's final decisions? Precourt isn't going to let this Austin FC thing go that easily.  

Expansion in professional sports draws more wannabes to the table than moths to a lamppost. Surprisingly, in the case of Major League Soccer, the laundry list hasn't really shrunk at all. No one has been formally eliminated; no one has conceded. They do realize that not everyone gets picked, right? 

By comparison, a classic game of musical chairs only allows one more player than seats available each round. And even that small battle can turn a little ugly from time to time. Make it 13 competing for two openings and watch out; there might be bloodshed. In alphabetical order, the candidates remain: Austin (if Columbus does stay), Charlotte, Detroit, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, Louisville, Phoenix, Raleigh-Durham, Sacramento, San Antonio, San Diego, St. Louis (the character that just will not die), and Tampa-St. Petersburg. With Cincinnati locking in some of its on-field talent for next year, each must be experiencing that collective phobia we all feel when we play: This music has been going on for a long time now; time to start scoping out a chair. 

Nowadays, the unwritten expectation is for potential bidders to already have the MLS seed planted in a professional (or semi-professional) club — playing somewhere in a lower tier on the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) pyramid. In each instance, 11 of these 13 cities have done the prerequisite work. Though its middle layers have become a tad chaotic in 2018, American soccer's equivalent to baseball's minor leagues presses on. The current Division-II representative, competing directly below MLS, is the United Soccer League (USL). This is where you will find teams like FC Cincinnati and Nashville SC, both of whom are slated to make the jump to the big time with the next round of expansion. Orlando City SC also began its journey to Division I from humble USL beginnings. 

It is the road map that Saint Louis FC, Louisville City FC, North Carolina FC, the Charlotte Independence, Indy Eleven, Tampa Bay Rowdies, Sacramento Republic FC, Phoenix Rising FC, Las Vegas Lights FC, and San Antonio FC aim to follow. Austin Bold FC was founded in 2017 and will make its debut, also in USL, next season. San Diego 1904 FC will begin play in 2019 as well; hitching its wagon to the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA). San Diego was the first franchise to sign on with the new Division-III league. Detroit City FC has the largest leap to make, currently operating in Tier 4 — semi-pro National Premier Soccer League (NPSL).    

USL took over the penultimate position on USSF's pyramid in 2017, when the rebirth of the North American Soccer League (NASL) ran into financial troubles. For seven seasons, the Division-II league was a revolving door of clubs scattered throughout U.S., Canada, and even Puerto Rico. Minnesota United FC and Montreal Impact hailed from this league before Major League Soccer came calling. Indy Eleven and North Carolina FC also got their start here, before following USL up the corporate ladder.

Places like St. Louis, Detroit, and Tampa Bay can trace their soccer roots back even farther, to the first iteration of NASL — the infamous Division-I precursor to Major League Soccer. The St. Louis Stars and Detroit Cougars were charter members in 1968, while the Tampa Bay Rowdies joined the league in its heyday (1975). All three played alongside such clubs as the Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders, San Jose Earthquakes, and Vancouver Whitecaps. The precedent of older names resurfacing, decades later in MLS, is the hope of many still in the running for franchises 27 and 28. 
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CHAPTER II

This legacy continuation topic leads us to the crux of the entire piece: Why 28? What is it about that number? We get who the candidates are. Now let's dig into that quantity they are fighting for. 

Quoted in articles throughout his tenure, Garber has used phrases like "stated target," "self-mandated cap," and "ultimate goal" in reference to "27 and 28 being the last expansion teams." The love affair is well documented but has never fully been explained.  

First, we must understand the current lay of the land and extract a few assumptions. These will assist in analyzing how a 28-team league could be configured.

Assumption 1: Garber and his president/deputy commissioner, Mark Abbott — tasked with overseeing all expansion efforts — care about things such as competitive balance and equal home and road splits. There's no guarantee this league's executives (or any league's) give a damn about much other than satisfying the bottom line of their investor-operators. But let's assume they do. Boring back-of-house logistics assure the parameters are the same for each franchise when a new season begins. Monopoly becomes even less fun if your brother receives $400 when he passes GO, while you're still collecting the measly $200. I like to live in a world where owners and general managers are that level of frustrated upon seeing their schedule is slightly more difficult than a rivals.  

Assumption 2: Despite all odds, Southern Ohio is somehow a region capable of supporting two Division-I soccer clubs. The cold, hard reality is that Cincinnati and Columbus (a mere 107 miles apart) will struggle to coexist as NYCFC and New York Red Bulls or LA Galaxy and LAFC do. It ultimately makes the selection of FC Cincinnati — as ready for play ten short months after their bid was accepted — appear extremely shortsighted. What was the rush? Garber could have/should have waited to see how Precourt's hand was going to play itself out. Instead, the league is now committed to two mid-market Ohio franchises, while some mega metropolitan areas will not hear their name called for expansion. Color me happy as a fan and former Ohioan, but alarmed as a businessman. This feels set up to fail.

I want to be proved wrong about this one. The #SaveDtheCrew initiative better reinvigorate a fanbase that will need to match the fervor Cincy is entering the league with. FC Cincinnati is coming in hot; while only 12,892 supporters showed up for Leg 1 of the Crew's Conference Semifinal upset win — possibly their most meaningful home match of the year. 

For all 23 seasons of its existence, Major League Soccer's schedule has run against the grain of the world's soccer calendar — kicking off in early March and ending with a Cup Final on the first Saturday in December. Teams are split into an Eastern and Western Conference. Assumption 3 is that this will remain the case all the way up through league expansion to 28. 

The addition of FC Cincinnati — as participant 24 overall, number twelve in the East — is a welcome return to homeostasis; 2018 felt slightly disjointed with 23. The 2019 plan is to have each club play all conference opponents twice and all crossover conference opponents once. This means a team like Toronto FC, for instance, would play 22 matches against Eastern Conference foes and another 12 against those in the West. That is a nice, round, balanced, all-inclusive 34 regular-season matches — same quantity as Germany's Bundesliga, Mexico's Liga MX, and the Dutch Eredivise. Well done, MLS. Foreshadowing: They should quit while they're ahead. Those words won't be uttered much from here on out.    

With 2020 comes Nasvhille SC (franchise 25) and Inter Miami CF (26). Two cities east of Chicago, meaning Assumption 4: The introduction of those expansion clubs will pull the Fire into the Western Conference. This move would be fitting; it is the conference affiliation the franchise had in its inaugural season (1998), in which they won their only MLS Cup and first of four U.S. Open Cup titles. Chicago going back "home" would maintain order with the geographical split in the league.

But what about that 2020 schedule? Assumption 5: The format of arranging fixtures from 2019 (conference opponents twice, non-conference once) will continue. With 26 clubs competing, this would mean each plays 24 intra- and 13 inter-conference matches. That's 37. And, if that's how it truly unfolds, is really significant. It would signify that the league office is not averse to increasing the regular-season match total; for the first time since a 2011 bump from 30 to 34. 

The alternative — annually selecting three opponents from the opposite conference to leave off a team's schedule — doesn't seem likely. Luck of the draw might take the league's best team off your slate of games in a given year. Seems arbitrary to keep this hard cap in place when it's already proven to be movable.   

When 37 matches becomes the agreed-upon sum (Assumption 6), then professional soccer in the United States would bring itself closer to, at the very least, looking the part of a domestic league powerhouse: There are 38 annual matches scheduled in the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, Italian Serie A, Brazilian Brasileirão, and French Ligue 1 — a.k.a. the "Big Boys."
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CHAPTER III

Okay, everything sounds well and good. But what happens when club 28 rolls around? The answer is "abject dysfunction." 

It is my belief that MLS headquarters is still unaware of what is waiting for them on that 2022 horizon. There is no way Garber & Co. has devoted enough time to research and forethought on this topic. I know this for certain because I have. And they would be charting a different course if they knew what I do. Instead, by constantly trumpeting 28 at every turn, Garber has blindly sent his fleet out into a disaster. Well, here's what owners will find when they get there. Should they choose not to read this, it's the situation they'll have to unscramble in real-time rather than three years in advance. 

If 2022 continues the theme of "everyone in your conference twice and everyone else once," then each club would play 40 matches — 26 in and 14 out. That ain't happening. No chance MLS eclipses the largest current totals in the world and plays a full playoff bracket on the back-end. Remember, nearly every domestic league on the planet crowns a champion on the final "regular-season" matchday, with no postseason tournament at all. 

Similar 0.0% chance Garber ditches a playoff system after he and his predecessors have spent 23 years burning into fans' collective consciousness. We expect, nay, demand it now. It is an American (and Canadian) league after all; playoffs are what we get up for

So, we clearly know that adjustments must be made in order to satisfy a desire for 28 teams and keep it at, or below, 38 matches. 

Option 1: Maintain the current two-conference alignment, but limit regular-season play to only half of the country. East plays East and West plays West. Further subdivide each conference into two divisions, where those inside meet four times and those outside meet twice a year. It is neat and tidy and everyone has the same number of chances at home and as they do on the road. (38 Matches)

Drawbacks: In a league that needs expanded exposure to stay alive, keeping half of the teams from playing your local club is a non-starter for me. Faces sell the game to a fringe audience. And if the superstars of the Eastern Conference never travel past the Mississippi River (and vice versa), then MLS would be marketing with a proverbial arm tied behind its back. 

The same thing plagued Major League Baseball for long enough that they eventually had to cave — creating pockets in the calendar for Interleague Play. That, of course, grew into a 15-team split with at least one crossover series always running. If stodgy, old baseball is making progressive decisions like that, you can't be the league pushing for regressive exclusivity. 

Option 2: Break the league into four divisions and have teams play three of the four in their entirety. Once again using Toronto FC as the example, the club would play the six others in their "X" Division of the Eastern Conference four times each — home and away, home and away. They would get all seven teams in the "Y" Division of the East and all seven from one of the two divisions in the West. Teams in the Western Conference left off this even-year schedule would swap positions on the calendar in odd years. (38 Matches) 

Drawbacks: Sure, the home and road splits would be balanced among those clubs in the same division, but locations of all other matches would be left up to chance. As it pertains to who hosts who each year, an annual rotation or randomized formula would have to be utilized — a la college or professional [tackle] football. 

Ex: In their one-and-only matchup of the 2022 season, Toronto FC travels to play the worst team in the other half of the Eastern Conference and only managers a draw. The club tied with Toronto for the division lead has that same crossover opponent, but at home. In a sport where crowds and atmospheres provide a measurable boost in performance, that mock scenario is too big to overlook. From 1996 to 2010, MLS clubs had less than a 25% chance of leaving a road match with three points, scoring 0.46 fewer goals in those games than at home. Pulling that statistical range to present day, teams have earned an average of 0.68 more points in their stadiums than that of their opponent. Other sports just say it, but home-field advantage is a real thing in Major League Soccer. It's why the home/road splits matter.  

Option 3: Modify the seven division of four breakdown in Option 2. Embrace the NFL model and select a handful of teams from the opposite conference that had a similar winning percentage from the prior year. This option is highly flexible on total matches. After the 24 divisional and seven additional conference games are satisfied, it is up to the league office as to how many more they would like to add. To keep the current total of 34, that number would be three. As our consistent example, Toronto FC could be open up its 2024 schedule to find Real Salt Lake (H), Portland Timbers (A), and LAFC (A) solely based off comparable 2023 results. (34+ Matches)

Drawbacks: Very little reason for it and does less to excite me. It checks the box on fixture total the league clearly wants. But that's about it. I would want more than just an appetizer from the other conference. Of all the models I've run, this one produces the lowest percentage of the league rolling through a team's home stadium. Depending on the home/road breakdown of the crossover conference matches, as few as ten different clubs would come to town. At most, fans get to see 12 unique names on the visitor's side of the scoreboard. When you're trying to sell tickets, the last thing you want is opponent fatigue. "27 other teams in this league and every game I go to a match we're playing ________!" 

Option 4: Keep the four divisions of seven, but have teams play the six divisional foes in two matches (one home, one away) instead of four. This leaves 21 opponents who aren't in the division; play them each once. Admittedly, the strongest of the bunch; power house divisional alignment, but fewer games than are played now — with five fewer clubs. (33 Matches) 

Drawbacks: What's the rhyme or reason behind who is awarded 17 home games and who gets 16? That right there says all you need to know. No investor-operator — in what is essentially a socialist economy — is going to be okay with one fewer ticketed event in their stadium than most of the league. And again, it's a crapshoot as to who gets the good teams at home and who gets them on the road. 

This model also reduces the number of matches per season to 33 — the lowest total since 2010. That seems like regression and not expansion, especially at the ticket window. The league wants to grow revenue, right? Also, two annual matches against division rivals seems low. Who wants to see the league's iconic derbies only twice per season? In some instances, MLS franchises have routinely met four times a year for the better part of two decades. It's like asking the Yankees and Red Sox to play less often; bad for business on every level.    

Option 5: Arrange the teams as if it were the Group Stage of the World Cup — seven divisions of four. Those in the division would play the standard two-game season series, each hosting one. There's 12. The rest of the regular season would be infilled with games against the other 24 clubs. (36 Matches)

Drawbacks: Stop me if you've heard this one before: No equality in home and road versus common opponents. There's also the reduction in rival frequency from Option 4. Furthermore, how would the playoffs work in this scenario? Since 2015, twelve clubs have made the postseason each and every season. If this seven-division league is selected, what quantity gets in? Seven division winners (obviously), but one overall Wild Card for eight? That's a substantial dip in participants, all while the league is undergoing expansion. 

For reference, the high-water mark for playoff inclusion was 12 of 20 clubs in 2015 (60.0%). Dropping all the way down to 28.6% (8 of 28) in under a decade would be a terrible over-correction. Note: Since 2013, none of the "Big Four" has less than 30% of their league make the playoffs. MLB: 33.3%, NFL: 37.5%, NHL: 51.6%, NBA: 53.3%. Having five Wild Cards — for continuity in the current twelve-team bracket — teeters on the absurd. Why should two division runner-ups be held out while an arbitrary five get to go? 

A fourteen team playoff bracket? Now the inclusion is ridiculous again, because a lengthy regular season only eliminates half the field. That would further water down the early contests into irrelevant fodder. Looking at you, NBA. And the totality of Opening Day through the MLS Cup Final would seemingly drag on forever. With two legs in both the conference semifinals and finals, it would take 19 playoff games to settle a championship. Enjoy that two-week offseason. All in all, the lack of resolute playoff format keeps this option from being a success.   
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CHAPTER IV

Clearly none of these options are ideal, which begs the question: "Why is Don Garber so in love with this quantity?" Short answer: extortion... err, expansion fees. The worst-kept secret in Major League Soccer is that Phil Anschutz and a few NFL royal families (Kraft, Hunt) are still owed a ton of money (plus interest) for personally floating the league during its 2001 bankruptcy scare. 

A large portion of the Reddit community sure believes Soccer United Marketing, the for-profit arm of Major League Soccer, operates like a Ponzi scheme — comically cloaked by a greedy acronym (SUM) inside what the USSF openly calls a pyramid. I don't put my tinfoil hat on when it comes to this rhetoric, but it is wise to acknowledge it exists. 

At its core, the business (founded in 2002) does have some multi-level marketing tendencies. Television revenue for non-MLS matches seem to funnel that direction. League sponsors like Advocare and Herbalife are notoroius pyramid schemes. And, as the CEO for SUM, Don Garber is very elusive when it comes to their joint bank account. I was once told that as little as 15% of owner capital goes to the club directly, with SUM collecting the other 85%. It all adds up to some curious franchise valuations that are largely inflated by new franchises joining the closed-loop, single-entity structure. Those involved do realize that particular faucet is about to shut off, right? Better get everything you can now and hope it survives the long haul.   

Depending on the market, the going rate for a modern expansion franchise is anywhere between $80M and $125M. Anything you ever read with a price tag of $150M is negotiated down. Typically, that fee gets broken into a ten-year installment plan, with the annual payment equally divided into the operating budget of the other clubs. Under that structure, 2032 would be the final year revenue from expansion exists. What will take its place to keep the franchise values at their current heights? 

Ultimately, it is what makes Assumption 1 (that whole "MLS executives give a damn about anything competition-related") the largest reach of this whole piece. They want the 28th club because they a) need it as a fossil fuel to keep the lights on elsewhere, and b) can get it. Everything I just laid out about how awful the end product will be from a fan perspective is utterly inconsequential to them. If it weren't, Major League Soccer would have stopped growth at 20 teams — playing a single-table, round-robin format like so many others. Or, stop at 24 like I also mentioned above.  

It also suggests 30 might not be out of the question someday. If there's not a line item in the league's 2033 budget that has grown large enough to compensate for the disappearance of expansion fees, then Garber's successor will open this process once again. While this does make for a more balanced schedule (three conferences of ten; 38 matches) it does have its drawbacks. Rivals would play twice instead of the four times the pod system produces. The quantity of teams also waters down the average talent on the field in each match. 

One thing expansion in all sports loses sight of: Only one team wins each year. This law of diminishing returns is felt the hardest by fanbases with the least preseason hope. Honestly, why are there 30 NBA franchises? My father has been an armchair lobbyist for 24 teams in that league for years. With my beloved Cleveland Cavaliers finally hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy in 2016, the grand total of teams to have ever done so grew to a whopping 17. And that number doesn't look like it could grow to 18 for the next two decades. 

Furthermore, there have been 72 NBA Finals, and seven teams (Clippers, Nuggets, Timberwolves, Hornets, Grizzlies, Raptors, and Pelicans) haven't even appeared in one. Convince me any of them will before I die. My point is: We have become so lost in the "more is better" mindset. Not every major city in the U.S. that can afford a franchise should be entitled to one. And the profits from expansion won't always outweigh the negatives. Let's not forget that being the last one standing out of 23 is tough enough. It's not going to get easier when that pool increases to 28. 

It's like being a hoarder. Buying a bigger house doesn't change the sickness; it just provides more rooms to put things. Each professional sports league commissioner needs to better acknowledge that adding more franchises only fills more places with despair. This despair is especially tough to swallow in a sport not nearly as popular in America as basketball. 

Each year, the International Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS) puts out highly-coveted rankings for all things soccer. As recent as 2014, Major League Soccer had fallen to 49th position among the domestic leagues in the world. That was one spot above the Erovnuli Liga, the top flight league in Georgia (the country, not the state). We were below powerhouse soccer nations such as Azerbaijan and Cyprus. Ouch. Now trying to sell yourself as the last-place club in that league.

If you take that data to heart, then the U.S. is closer to matching the quality of soccer played in the Democratic Republic of Congo (89th on that list) than it is to Argentina's Superliga (6th). And that was when the league only had 19 rosters to fill. Think about that for a second. Juxtapose it with the current gold standard in North America: We must have the finest professional and "amateur" (collegiate) baseball, football, basketball, hockey, golf, tennis, extreme sport, e-sport, stock-car racing, horse racing, and even drone racing circuits on the planet. How will adding more and more mediocre former college players to this equation boost the overall product?
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CHAPTER V 

I may have buried the biggest drawback facing all of the above. Regional rivalries are the lifeblood of the league's television ratings success. One of the biggest draws for expanding to a place like St. Louis is the national interest it could drum up whenever the team played Kansas City or Chicago; and to a lesser extent, Nashville and Cincinnati. In any sport, fans without a dog in the fight still tune in to watch teams that don't like each other. With 28 clubs — the final two being Austin and St. Louis (the newest betting-line favorites) — the dividing line between east and west is slated to land in a really troublesome spot. Mark Abbott must not have played Risk as a kid. 

It appears as though the Eastern Conference is a lock to have MLS stadiums in the following states/provinces (and one district) by 2022: Florida (x2), Georgia, D.C., Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Quebec, Ontario, Ohio (x2), and  Tennessee. That's 13 clubs. Add Missouri to that list and there goes a major reason for adding Saint Louis FC. Outside of Nashville, there's not really a natural rival among that group. Supporters will sure enjoy seeing Sporting KC come to town once every other year.  

Place St. Louis in the Western Conference, instead, and you'd likely have to offset the move with Chicago returning east. Under any of the scheduling models detailed above, Saint Louis FC would, at best, play one match per season against the Chicago Fire, one against FC Cincinnati, and one against Nashville SC. Some years, you're looking at two out of the three taking place in the other team's building. Not having that assortment of franchises play an annual home-and-home series would be an unforgivable revenue opportunity fail. But hey, Real Salt Lake would be guaranteed to come to St. Louis every season. Hot ticket.     

You see, St. Louis' value is never fully realized without an alignment including Kansas City and Chicago. Right now, the league is backed into a corner of either or. Conundrum time. Does the league office do Austin, Phoenix, Sacramento, and Las Vegas dirty just to keep St. Louis, Kansas City, and Chicago all together in the Western Conference? Watch out for an eastern city to jump the line past more qualified candidates.  

To me, Charlotte, Louisville, Raleigh-Durham, Indianapolis, and Tampa-St. Petersburg are each square pegs in a map cut for round holes. They're either too small, too late, or too close to another recent expansion club. Detroit is nowhere as prepared; its retractable roof ideas for Ford Field never left the ground. Simply put: There are better ownership groups and markets west of the Mississippi. But... all six of these areas can be found on a map east of Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City. [Nefarious laughter] 

I'm all for screwing over Anthony Precourt and Austin's soccer scene, but it would be a travesty to deny Sacramento again. That, or ignore everything Phoenix has been able to accomplish. But the MLS board of governors and SUM are in the interest of making money. They need major markets... and minor markets that play similarly-situated other minor markets. 

All of a sudden, some awful thoughts popped into my head: What if the league alienates geography altogether? What if they go full NFC/AFC mode and place 14 teams into each conference by shear happenstance? Or worse, quarantine all the newest teams into their own conference like the NHL did from 1967 to 1970. Oh God. They could emulate the Big Ten's failed Legends and Leaders divisions (2011-13).

Those would be a few ways to force this mess to work. My bold prediction: Look for the league to compound its issue of 28 by ditching the Eastern and Western Conferences as we know them. They'll announce franchises in St. Louis (3-1) and Austin (1-2) as the final two clubs. Then, they'll link up Option 4 from above in some sort of geography-less four-division system. Like baseball's American and National Leagues, two of the shaded rectangles in the map [below] will be randomly paired together as a conference with a kitschy name; the remaining boxes of seven clubs will do the same. It would solve their Midwestern rivalry issue, while keeping the two conference concept alive.
It'll sure look pretty and "sell" to a naive audience. But it will also be less than ideal when it comes to the schedule. Remember: 33 matches in that model = regression, not progression. No home/road balance among competitors and possibility your team gets 16 home matches to your rival's 17. With regular season reduction, the subsequent playoffs would likely increase in size — which isn't a great thing. Americans do enjoy a small dose of postseason parity, but not the meaning of the Supporters' Shield to completely go in the dumpster.     
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CHAPTER VI

If I may once again remind Mr. Garber and his staffers — original concept was mailed to league headquarters in October of 2016 — there is a solution that makes a lot more people a lot happier.  

MLS is already talked about as being better than it is; afforded the benefit of the doubt because it hails from the nation that brings the world Coca-Cola-Hollywood-Yankees culture. If it's a sports league in the U.S., it has be good. Many online polls bear this delusion out; Major League Soccer frequently shows up inside the top ten in the world. It is time for the league to strike while that iron is hottest. 

Instead, Garber is poised to undercut the highest popularity he and his league have ever experienced. Everything he helped build will ironically be undone by the very same architect. And no combination of Austin and St. Louis or Sacramento and Detroit can change that. 28 is the problem. 

Think of the league as a sports car. Engineer it to be smaller than average, but keep the sex appeal; strong from top to bottom, but with tons of mobility. If it is sleek and simple, with all the inner-workings as precise as a Swiss watch, then popularity will correlate. Keep churning out an imperfect clunker and the blasé reception is a foregone conclusion. In the end, humans like things that work really well. And so... 

Introduce the world to the one-and-only [intentionally] odd-numbered sports league, with 27 franchises. 

It takes all the aforementioned drawbacks of a 28-team schedule and addresses them head-on:
  • 38 matches equals that of the heavy hitters worldwide. As my Little League coach always said, "If you wanna run with the big dogs... you gotta pee in the tall grass."
  • Each team plays at least one game per season against all the others
  • 17 different clubs are guaranteed to visit your MLS town each and every year
  • Despite more games and more traveling, existing teams will actually see their overall travel distances shortened
  • Uses a single Wild Card format that is easily digested by the American sports-viewing public
  • Each team plays the same common opponents, the same amount of times, in the same home and road locations as everyone else in their immediate grouping
This list fails to mention one of the model's advantages directly, because it is a dig on the league as a whole. Cutting down from 28 to 27 means there's an entire roster and coaching staff that doesn't need to be filled. I'll be kind, allude to that being a good thing, and leave it at that.  

It is widely accepted that sports and entertainment act as our nation's chief export. The relatively enormous outside investment into MLS is proof of this greatness by association belief. Do we have the best players? No, not even close. But we can work to have the best-looking stadiums and kits and endorsements and supplemental entertainment. If we can just talk louder than the other leagues, we can win a public perception battle. Do what America does best: Sell sporting events as made-for-television live theater and produce it better than anyone in the world. Distract from the on-field shortcomings with the best personalities and technology. 

This proposed business model takes that into account and pushes the focus to the best matchups, at the best times of the week, all 41 weeks of the season.
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CHAPTER VII

Blind résumé time. After all, we should really let the people decide. Assume Austin FC is already in under a 28-team format. Garber will play the best card in his hand — a four-division, 33-match configuration. Measure that up against my proposal for 27, where Austin is nowhere to be found. Here's what the opponent log would look like for St. Louis entering as the final franchise and then again with Sacramento in that spot. These are the guaranteed quantities of annual regular-season encounters: 
It is objectively Schedule A all day, every day. And this is the same story for any of the potential expansion candidates. Schedule A is for a 38-game, 27-team set.

Much like Back to the Future's flux capacitor, the power of this model comes from its use of the number three. There are three conferences with three "pods" (Tide sponsorship angle) containing three teams each; a 3x3x3 matrix. It calls upon an established practice in soccer culture; first challenging teams in a small group, then unleashing them to the fickle nature of knockout bracket. Make it to that latter stage by besting the others in your pool.

The inspiration was borne out of the Cascadia Cup. For the better part of four decades — in various divisions of North American professional soccer — these Pacific Northwest rival clubs (Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland) have held their own round-robin competition within the framework of a larger league schedule. 2004 introduced a legitimate trophy; 2011 marked the first season that all competed in Major League Soccer. Today, their matchups have become a staple broadcast among the league's major network partners. They sell. 

There's also precedent for the league having three conferences. People are quick to forget the 2000 and 2001 seasons: four teams each in the Eastern Division, Central Division, and Western Division. Study history, kids. The answer is always in there. 

My plan isn't rocket science. Take that road map to success and proliferate it across the country. So, out of the gate, the new Cascadia Division in the Western Conference is a lock in both name and occupants: Vancouver Whitecaps FC, Seattle Sounders FC, Portland Timbers. Boom. Done.

Of equal ease was laying out the entire Eastern Conference. Sun Belt Division: Inter Miami CF, Orlando City SC, and Atlanta United FC. Piece of cake. Capital Division: DC United, Philadelphia Union, and one of the New York clubs (I chose NYC FC). If you were unaware, all three cities have held the distinction as our nation's capital at one time in history. This left the other Big Apple club (New York Red Bulls) to join the New England Revolution and Montreal Impact in the Colonial Division. 

Each pod is full of highly-concentrated distaste for the other sports towns in the grouping. Look at the Colonial Division and tell me the NHL wouldn't be jealous of having a Montreal, Boston, New York threesome on their national broadcasts nearly every week.

As an aside, the farthest distance between any two cities in the same division, among the four pods I've revealed so far, is Atlanta to Miami — only 663 miles. When used properly, geography can be the league's best friend. The only positive aspect of a Crew relocation would have been the trio of FC Dallas, Austin FC, and the Houston Dynamo in a quaint pod of Lone Star franchises. In a way, it would outperform even the Cascadia Division; keeping all the teams under a single Texas roof. But adding Austin FC doesn't move the needle of progress forward at all. It is not located in an untapped pocket of the continent that's devoid of Major League Soccer. It's a college town with zero professional sports experience. You'll read more about it soon, but for me, no matter how much PSV is owed from the league, Austin should not be the home of franchise 27.

Instead, FC Dallas and the Houston Dynamo meet up with Nashville Encore SC and form the Southland Division — the go-to pod for twangy accents, cowboy boots, and good Southern eats. 

P.S. - Nashville should listen to my suggestion and brand itself as the "Encore." Reason 1: By the time they enter the league, it'll be eight years since the last team with a true nickname joined MLS (Impact, 2012). I refuse to count "United" as anything that took brain power. This faux-European appropriation has hit critical mass. The time to mix in a more traditional American moniker is now, in a city that feels like it would demand it more than most. 

Reason 2: The word doesn't end in an "s", and boy do we love that in soccer (Galaxy, United, Revolution, Crew, Dynamo, Union, Fire, Impact). 

Reason 3: Is there anything more Nashville than watching someone play for 46 minutes, only for them give you 49 more after you thought the show was over? The live performers in that town pour out every ounce of their souls for their patrons; playing well beyond the allotted time, night after night. I see it as the perfect homage. The name shies away from coming across too literal (Music City SC), dreadfully generic (Nashville SC), or overly derivative of the Triple-A team in town (Nashville Sounds). Then again, maybe it's just me. That'll have to be a separate phone call with a different audience to debate. 
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CHAPTER VIII

Also in need of further dialogue is the remaining pod construction. As it stands, my final four divisions are fluid constructs — with working titles based on the ever-changing teams that go inside. They heavily rely on where Major League Soccer would like to place pins in the league map. Remember, they want to keep going to 28. Let's play out the hypotheticals for franchise number 27 as if it were the last spot (ranked from most to least deserving):

Sacramento Republic FC

In this expansion process, there has been no one more prepared or more deserving than the California capital. Full disclosure: I was in the "hell no" camp early on, but have since been awed by how much civic buy-in and community sponsorship their group's proposal has received. Sacramento showed up with their homework done long before Cincinnati and Nashville even started theirs. Their reward? Skipped in the latest expansion.  

If Sacramento is properly recognized for its long-standing, city-council-approved Railyard plan, then I have the club joining Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids in the Sierra (or Intermountain) Division of the Western Conference. They would be the sole trio without a common time zone. But that was an inevitability; RSL and COL are the only two franchises in the league running on Mountain Time. That falling domino would leave the San Jose Earthquakes, LA Galaxy, and LAFC to form the West's final division — the Gold Coast. 

Meanwhile in the Central, Toronto FC, Columbus Crew SC, and FC Cincinnati would comprise the Great Lakes Division. The Trillium Cup — played annual between Toronto FC and the Crew, due to Ohio and Ontario's shared state/provincial wildflower — becomes a three-way affair, like the Cascadia Cup. Minnesota United FC, Sporting KC, and the Chicago Fire (Heartland Division) would round out the neatly-packaged 27-team field.  

The first downside is the travel from Sacramento, CA to Commerce City, CO (1,170 miles); especially with San Jose sitting there. It felt odd to break up these two NorCal cities, given that only 120 miles separate them. At the end of the day, proximity lost out to something bigger: Los Angeles has its own gravitation pull. It was obvious from the get-go that SoCal would be California's two-franchise nucleus. LA Galaxy and LAFC are the Cool Kid's Club shopping around for a third. And with four Golden State teams in this hypothetical, one had to be jettisoned elsewhere. 

The second hiccup occurred late last year, when it was revealed that Sacramento's ownership consortium lacked the deep pockets of a lead investorThis is slightly alarming that, in nearly a year's time, no one has been found to step in. The fact that they are not searching alone makes it more troubling. You see, the league office actively head hunts for franchises in need of a "35%-er" — a Mark Abbott reference to the largest ownership stake preferred in a group. They are like matchmakers for billionaires and sound investment opportunities. And yet, their joint efforts have collectively come up empty. It suggests that perhaps there is a better option out there...

Saint Louis FC

The only reason they are not number one of this list is because the overhauled ownership group is still playing catch-up after the 2017 public vote failed. 

Including the "Gateway to the West" would ironically leave that region of North America in need of an MLS franchise. St. Louis would undoubtedly join the Central. This means — without a Sacramento, San Diego, Las Vegas, or Phoenix — the Western Conference would need someone from my previous pod breakdowns to shift its affiliations. Minnesota is the best candidate for the relocation, taking the place of Sacramento in the previous example. 

Yes, the 1,200 miles separating Minnesota United FC and Real Salt Lake would take over the league's largest distance between members of the same pod. No, St. Paul, MN and Sandy, UT are not as close as Foxborough, MA and Harrison, NJ. This Just In: The middle of the country is massive and sparsely populated. But states like Minnesota, Utah, and Colorado are accustomed to being used by sports leagues to stitch together wide expanses of land — and the travel that comes with it. 

There is even precedent set regarding this revised trio: The Timberwolves, Nuggets, and Jazz of the NBA make it work in the same division. With the Trail Blazers and the Thunder rounding out that Northwest Division, the group's bounding box is stretched farther to the west and south than anyone would prefer. In an athletic context, the term "division" implies an essence of a proximity. Nearly 2,000 miles apart, Portland and Oklahoma City don't exactly feel like neighbors. Minneapolis to Salt Lake City is a breeze by comparison.  

If Minnesota United FC does bite the bullet, what's left over is glorious for the league. Supporters would get the same Great Lakes Division of Columbus, Cincinnati, and Toronto as listed above. But the Heartland triangle would get sexier: Kansas City, Chicago, and Saint Louis. Twelve matches a year out of both these divisions should sell some serious tickets. 

To me, this is the best 27-team league arrangement the league could roll out. I feel guilty suggesting that St. Louis should jump all others in line, but they should. Of course, I am extremely biased. The city has been my home since 2010. I played a major role in one of the two St. Louis ownership bids proposed to Major League Soccer in 2016. Clearly, I have a vested interest in seeing this through at the expense of all other cities.

But I know how hard Sacramento has worked on its efforts. They've done it all the right way and have been class acts about it. When we were working on our bid, then-chairman Warren Smith's consultants disclosed the entirety of their submitted materials. The ownership group was like a team of sherpas that wanted to guide us through the drudgery of the expansion application. Hey, we've been at this longer. We've seen what works and what doesn't. Let us show you the ropes. The gesture was as unexpected as Bobby Newport's "Holy sh*t" at the end of Leslie Knope's debate speech. The people portrayed by the media as our enemies were actually rooting for us.

Note: The front office for Sporting KC and the San Jose Earthquakes were equally gracious with their time. None of these clubs viewed us, or any of the other hopeful cities, in an adversarial light. It was all about sharing ideas to make our pitch deck better. Call it the bright side of a single-entity structure; all boats truly rise together.     

Under new executive control, Sacramento's bid remains the champion of a "better together" mantra. And best of all, they didn't need "United" in their name in order to convey that fact.  

Though I'm lobbying for 27 and only St. Louis, the reality is that Major League Soccer will expand to 28 franchises and Sacramento has as good a shot as any (maybe better). This plea won't stop that machine. The 28-team MLS schedule will be a disaster, but at least all parties will be happier than being on the outside, right?   

Phoenix Rising FC

The largest metropolitan area not already in the league or set to join, Phoenix would make a ton of sense. They have a 21,000-seat stadium plan (in Scottsdale), strong financial backing (thanks to Chinese hotelier Alex Cheng), and the notoriety associated with Didier Drogba playing for their current USL incarnation. In fact, the club is seeking the league title in the USL Cup Final this Thursday. None of these things hurt to have in the fold. 

Should Phoenix rise all the way to Major League Soccer (pun very much intended), they would be the ones to settle into a Mountain Division with Real and the Rapids; everything else would look the same as it did in Sacramento's bid. 

It needs to be stated, however, that if the league decides it will continue its current spring-to-fall calendar forever and ever, then cities like this do become less appealing. Heat-related delays and water shortages could be a real threat to this plan's viability. Should Major League Soccer wise up and run its season through the winter, this would be my top candidate. 

Also on the "Con" side of the ledger, there are communities with much deeper roots to professional soccer. With a finite number of openings left, it would be sacrilege to select a Johnny Come Lately. Look for Phoenix is 15 years as a relocation destination, or dare I say it... a promoted club from the lower ranks. [Gasp]

Austin FC

If Precourt does sell his interest in the Crew, he'll still be a heavy favorite to push forward with Austin FC — and its plagiarized Portland Timbers themes — as an expansion team. The trouble with this thought process stems from the quality of the other expansion candidates that remain. It will be a tough sell to convince me, other supporters, and hopefully a board of governors that Austin, TX is better suited to raise the marketability of a single-entity corporation than Saint Louis, Sacramento, Detroit, Phoenix, San Diego, Las Vegas and two different North Carolina locations.

At its core, Garber has a simple math problem: Four MLS franchises need dispersed over two states, Texas and Ohio. Nearly all of us who follow the league believed that Cincinnati's approved expansion plan would create a 3-1 split in favor of the Lone Star State. But now that the Precourt sideshow has begun to unravel, adding a fifth club to the mix doesn't seem as appetizing. With the valiant retention of the Crew, it would be a head-scratcher to not leave it alone at 2-2. I understand population density and I get the intent behind the Electoral College, but how can anyone justify 39% of the total franchises in a multinational company being placed in the four-state combo of California, Texas, Ohio, and Florida? 

To me, what made any sense in relocation quickly disappeared when presenting the Texas capital as an expansion team. It was always "Yeah, sure it would be a step up from what Columbus has going on." But that notion can't be misconstrued to mean it's an absolute certainty that Austin would be better than all challengers.

I always felt it would behoove both the league and Anthony Precourt for the California native to, instead, join forces with the Sacramento bid. He could do an about-face with his current perception among MLS supporters; other cities clearly sided with Columbus against their "scumbag" owner. Ride in on a white horse, bankroll that project, and become the hero. PSV gets majority control of a new franchise and a more prepared, better-suited market enters the scene. Perhaps that is just too logical in its supply and demand analysis.

In the league office, however, Precourt doesn't need to atone for a thing. He pays his bills, generates some revenue, and is well respected by other owners. And that is how it goes in professional sports; the tight-knit brotherhood of wealthy shot callers insulate one another from the unruly masses outside their door. There is equity in already being inside that trusted investor-operator inner circle. He is the devil Garber knows versus the devil he doesn't. 

In essence, Precourt has become the new Beckham; carrying an I.O.U. for an expansion franchise in a location of his choosing. And that place is Austin. He'll make the most money there. The league will point to unprecedented corporate sponsorship and a plug-and-play stadium to distract folks from the fact that it's not that great of a location for growing the game nationwide.   

So, Austin FC is likely lucky number 27 — the final franchise in my model. The Lone Star Division becomes easy to assemble with Houston and Dallas. Toronto, Columbus, and Cincinnati stay the Great Lakes trio, while the southeast vertex of the Heartland triangle would have to reposition: Kansas City, Chicago, and Nashville. 

It's not the worst. It's merely the principle of the decision. There are simply better options in places where implementation wouldn't be as invasive. It's like attempting to run a campaign as a third-party political candidate. To have any chance of survival, Austin FC would need to carve out a ton of territory held tightly by Dallas and Houston. It would be a tall task to convert/steal/claim enough supporters to sustain something new in the region. In truth, Sacramento could also struggle with this, too. 

St. Louis and Phoenix, however, would measure fairly low on this requisite fan-flipping scale. Those few Missourians in Sporting KC t-shirts and Arizona residents with an LAFC ball cap wouldn't take much convincing to donate their apparel to Goodwill. The new club would emphatically be theirs. Same goes for our next two franchises...   

Las Vegas Lights FC

Same story as Phoenix in terms of division alignment, weather concerns, and that feeling it's just not there yet. It is a logical consideration, though, with how the world is beginning to view the desert oasis — and gambling for that matter. Socially, we have evolved to the point where it is not a sound sports business decision to not be in Vegas.  

Their USL club just finished their inaugural season with the 33-team league's sixth-highest attendance (average of 7,266 per match). Who would be dumb enough to turn down a hot hand in that town? Plus, they just inked Eric Wynalda as their manager. And I love me some Wynalda; he's the best candidate to throw a giant monkey wrench into the current MLS/USSF machine. Right behind him on that list is his new boss, Brett Lashbrook. My heart wants this bid to be selected; my head gives it very little chance. 

They may just backdoor this whole thing with a rival league and force a merger. With those names, whatever other entity they want to be a part of will probably be more successful than MLS in 30 years.    

Detroit City FC

Of all the inclusions out there, this one is the most puzzling. The population base is great, the heritage is there; it was a coveted finalist for expansion two years ago. Clearly, it checks a lot of the boxes. Yet something about the Motor City and MLS doesn't feel right. It's probably the breakdown of the proposed soccer-specific stadium deal, prompting talks that yet another domed, synthetic turf NFL stadium (Ford Field) could be utilized. [Groan] 

If somehow still selected, Cincinnati and Columbus would relocate to the Heartland with Kansas City; Minnesota would return out to its Rocky Mountain tandem and Nashville would head back below the Mason-Dixon Line. Along with Chicago and Toronto, the Great Lakes Division was made for Detroit. 

But that pocket of the upper Midwest appears content with what it has. Detroit's semi-pro club (in Tier 4's NPSL) crushes attendance records and supporters oddly relish the sense of not belonging. I could see the team making the jump a few tiers up the pyramid, but not all the way to the top. And my sense is that locals would be okay with that. Anything in Division II or III that offers them more than six home matches a year is a meteoric upgrade.  

The Rest

I hate saying it, but these really appear to be the only viable markets remaining. If Austin can't land a franchise, then what makes anyone in San Antonio believe their bid would stand apart as better/unique? If Austin can, then where in the world does San Antonio think they fit. Texas ain't a four-franchise state. So that's a hard no. 

Tampa/St. Pete's only real hope was having Miami fail to launch. Same goes for Indianapolis, hoping Columbus would move and Cincinnati would be passed over. I enjoy visiting my sister in Louisville, but it's not a human major league town. For horses, yes. All the possible Carolina configurations don't do much for the league in stretching its breadth; with 70,000 fans a night, Atlanta has that region more than covered. 

San Diego is an interesting one. It has had Landon Donovan on the front lines running around like he's David Beckham 2.0. But the facts are the facts: Selecting San Diego puts three clubs in Southern California. Four if you count Xolos de Tijuana of Liga MX — 19 miles away. I know the city's demographics include a large soccer-loving constituency, but another club in that region seems superfluous in a league of only 27 or 28. Plus, the folding of Chivas USA in 2014 proved that the league may have overvalued that market. They weren't the first league, nor the last, to have issues there. 

This fails to mention the results of the city's Novemeber 6 ballot measures (E and G), which officially nipped "SoccerCity" in the bud and barely approved the "SDSU West" master plan. The former had a real shot at expansion, but the hiccup came in the form of public support. In order to redevelop the former home of the NFL's Chargers, passage of a stadium financing referendum was a must. 29% of the vote sends a clear and resounding message as to what citizens felt about that. The latter measure, that did pass, has a different primary tenant at the center of its proposed re-use — the Aztecs football team. MLS was seen as the possible add-on and not the core reason San Diego voted "yes" on this plan. Not like it was with Measure E.  

This means San Diego State University is now the gatekeeper to the city's professional soccer hopes. And that doesn't look like such a great thing. The school's athletic director, John David Wicker, recently told the San Diego Union-Tribune: "We will reach out to the MLS, and potentially the USL, to talk about potential partnerships that might be available. We are looking to engage the MLS and see if they have an ownership group in mind for San Diego." First off, that doesn't sound like a proposal that is anywhere close to reaching a comfortable cruising altitude. Hell, it doesn't appear the plane has even taxied into take-off position. This late in the game, with the stakes as high as they are, that has to be troubling to local supporters.  

And if I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times: Anybody that uses "the" before "MLS" should be immediately barred from any and all expansion discussions, without the chance for recompense. The Major League Soccer isn't a thing. Just as the Major League Baseball isn't. And definite articles leading into acronyms/initialisms matter. Anything to the contrary shows a tone-deaf lack of care or understanding about the words inside. Yeah, we'd love to be a part of the MLS. Nope. You just lost your chance. We'd love to be a part of the MLS Cup Playoffs. Sure, that's a different story altogether.  
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CHAPTER IX

I am so confident that a fair and competitively-balanced schedule needs to rule the day, because history across the pond tells me so. There are nearly a hundred soccer clubs in England and Wales that would love to be a part of the First Division in English Football. Name the entry fee and many would gladly buy their way into that exclusive group in a heartbeat. But the UK's top sports league has always been capped at a strikingly low quantity. In 1905, The Football League — as it was known — expanded to 20 clubs and a 38-game schedule. Today, the Premier League has... 20 clubs and a 38-game schedule. They've really come a long way. To the Brits, the former number will always be dictated by the latter. Play everybody right on down the table and snake it right on back. Two matches per opponent.  

As Americans, by contrast, we have come to expect growth in both categories. 1905 in the archives of our national pastime saw 16 Major League Baseball clubs play ~154 games apiece; we've been up to 30 since 1998 and 162 since 1961. Bigger and more. You can bet 32 teams playing 162 is the future. Then perhaps 32 playing 154. In other words, the maximum number of games has no bearing on how many clubs can participate. The number of contests between teams is malleable, unbalanced, and can be shoehorned to fit inside whatever calendar MLB commissioner Rob Manfred wants. This is a common denominator with all North American professional sports leagues.   

The highest quantity that English top-flight soccer ever grew to was 22 clubs (42 matches). This was after a World War I hiatus, in 1919, where the league expanded by two. These totals lasted — off and on — until 1995. It was at that point when owners and officials, with voiced concerns over the length of the season, finally and absolutely voted to scale back the number of matches. And if they shrunk the calendar without shrinking the pool of teams, then some clubs would only meet once a year. Wouldn't make much sense; wouldn't be equal to all parties. Sound familiar?

It is a valuable lesson for Major League Soccer. Work backwards for how long you want a balanced schedule to be and adjust the quantity of teams into that framework. Don't listen to your American brothers on this one. Your crazy British uncle (of which I have one, myself) has it right. Now with over $6 billion in revenue, the Premier League is the fourth-most profitable league in the world — trailing only the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and the National Basketball Association. In case you are wondering, MLS is 16th on that list ($985M). 

The most lucrative soccer league on the planet has never chased revenue by calling upon a volume scheme. Some of the best young players and most valuable clubs currently play in the EFL Championship, essentially Triple-A for the Premier League. But the Tier 1 league will not budge on how many clubs participate annually, just to include these marketable faces and places.  

That explanation is three-fold: 1) Expansion disrupts the homeostasis of their calendar. 2) Despite its "minor league" status, the EFL Championship actually has the 17th-highest revenue among the world's various sports leagues; only $11M behind MLS in profits. 3) Just because it's capped at 20 clubs doesn't mean it is the same 20 each year. And there lies the heart of European soccer success — new blood.  

I'll never fully understand why this league's expansion has been so convoluted and fueled with supporter rage. I get it if you want your city to be a part of the National Hockey League, let's say. With that professional sport (and all others in America), there's really only expansion and relocation as established methods to see a club through to the pinnacle league. Gone are the AFL and ABA days where being absorbed is an option. So, after Seattle makes 32 NHL franchises in 2020, that'll likely be the last expansion hockey team in my lifetime. Thus, I understand the frustration if you're a billionaire in Quebec City or Kansas City. Your hopes to own an NHL franchise are solely dependent on an existing one — in the soon-to-be-closed-loop system — selling and moving their operations. It'll be like First Law of Thermodynamics: Matter can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed. 

That's just not the case with soccer. New teams come and go all the time. And purging the annual poor performers is in the sport's open-loop DNA.   

If MLS wants Austin FC so badly, have them win their way through Division II promotion. Same goes for a Sacramento or Phoenix. Republic FC already has a chip on its shoulders, so harness the power of that "us against the world" narrative. If Garber slams the door in the face of them once more (seemingly for good), I'd love to see how intensely they would fight to get in through a window. And when it inevitably happens, they will have something to hold over the heads of all others in MLS: Earned and not given. 

Let's be honest, that's how I would want my club to join — if the ultimate goal is to have the strongest, most dedicated supporter following in North American sports. The path to getting the top would be an unrivaled story of grit. It would begin to embody the entire franchise and what it stands for, how the team plays. That type of foundation/heritage is gold to a marketing team. 

Sadly, the current process appears to be leaving this option out. It's as if those not selected for expansion are doomed to never be a part of Major League Soccer; making fanbases panicky and reckless on social media. This fear is based in blatant inaccuracies. The next commissioner of MLS want 30 or 32 teams. Obviously, I think that is asinine, but the decision is above my pay grade. There's a way more could get in. 

Promotion/relegation should also become a viable option that is put into practice throughout the world. Note: "Pro/rel" is the pretentious lingo necessary to call yourself a true MLS supporter. It took me nine chapters and over 12,000 words to even mention the term. That's because the success of this model is not predicated on it. Do I want it? For sure. It's the perfect counterargument for those that say capping expansion at 27 is foolish. However, if Garber is going to continue fighting it, the system can do without. 

My theory on the topic: What do you have to lose by allowing scorned expansion rejects try to prove you wrong? A pissed off, "told you so" club would be a fiery (and exciting) addition to the league's stagnant bottom half. Furthermore, sending the teams that aren't adequately spending on training facilities or Designated Players should be penalized with a year (or more) in timeout. Any belief that the system does not work for Major League Soccer ignores common sense.

Quadrupling the budget for the Division II league of USSF's choosing is priority one — so that fall from grace is softened by comparable revenue/exposure opportunities. You can't have a Mercedes-Benz Stadium in USL/NASL/NISA (whoever officially lands the gig) on equal footing as a 7,800-seat modified baseball field in Tulsa, Oklahoma. That would be akin to sending Atlanta United into a black hole to rot away. Not that his club would ever be in jeopardy, but owner Arthur Blank would never be okay with this. 

And the opposite is also true: Markets competing in Tier 2 are going to have to meet new MLS standards if any could be called upon for promotion. This layer of the USSF pyramid would need the chaff to be discarded and new barriers to entry established. We're talking desirable cities and soccer-specific stadiums. Leagues are truly as strong as their weakest. If MLS wants to go down that pro/rel path, that means the last place team in Division II — not club 27 of 27. Choose wisely with who you're comfortable allowing that to be. Do they elevate the brand or colonize new territory? If not, they have to go to Division III. See ya, Charleston Battery. Hello, some club from San Diego. 

Joining them in D-III would be the Portland Timbers 2 and all other sequels of that ilk. Affiliates (both in-house and through contracted terms) would really lose their value if they stayed in a pro/rel Division II. If the object is to gain promotion, then D-II owners would need autonomy in player personnel decisions. Current affiliate Ottawa would never give away its talent midseason upon Montreal's request. Though not in direct on-field competition, they would grow to become cross-tier foes — jockeying for the best local players in Eastern Canada. No more sharing the same pool. D-III would become that true player development holding tank for more amicable call-ups. Every MLS franchise could have their very own "II" or "2" (Toronto FC II, Seattle Sounders FC 2, et alia). There would be no upward mobility for this league.  

From my vantage point, the smart thing to do would be to mirror a three-conference MLS with the exact same structure below. No offense to places like Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, but I could only make an argument for 21 locations that Major League Soccer would be happy/tolerant to see walk through that door. The 12 "losers" of the on-going MLS audition are locks, plus a few clubs plucked from the purgatory of a broken NASL. NPSL and USL League Two contribute the finals pieces. These are metropolitan statistical areas (MSA) with proven population bases and necessary corporate resources to sustain a top-flight team. 

Under the assumption that St. Louis is franchise number 27, then my Division II would have the following franchises:

Eastern Conference

Charlotte Independence
North Carolina FC
Tampa Bay Rowdies
Ottawa Fury FC
Puerto Rico FC
Jacksonville Armada FC
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

Central Conference

Detroit City FC
Louisville City FC
San Antonio FC
Indy Eleven
OKC Energy FC
Memphis 901 FC
Austin FC

Western Conference

Phoenix Rising FC
Sacramento Republic FC
Las Vegas Lights FC
FC Edmonton
San Diego 1904 FC
Calgary Foothills FC
San Francisco Deltas

That list, added to 27 MLS clubs, represents 41 of the 48 largest MSAs in the United States and the top six census metropolitan areas (CMA) in Canada. If counted in the U.S. table, the San Juan-Caguas-Guaynabo MSA would rank 22nd behind St. Louis (2.6 million). The Salt Lake City MSA is the smallest inclusion from either country, but still has over 1.2 million inhabitants. This collection cuts out all the fluff, giving the regions the biggest chance to succeed.  

All are worthy of sharing the same stage; arguably more so than a Burnley (population 73,000) being able to compete against an Arsenal (London population of 8.13 million) in the Premier League. Of the group, only San Juan and Louisville have no professional sports team currently playing in the "Big Four" — not counting the 2003 Montreal Expos' Puerto Rico experiment. Perhaps each could be the test balloon that entices other leagues to grow into their unsung market (i.e. Vegas Golden Knights, Tennessee Oilers). 

This format's foreseeable drawback is decades off and would take a perfect storm of misfortune: Extended relegation out of particular MLS franchises, paired with a slow accumulation of promoted D-II clubs from the same state. This recipe could eventually give MLS six California clubs. Similarly, the Central could someday have four in Texas; four Floridians in the East. There's nothing to panic over, for the odds of anything greater than four in   

In my model, promotion and relegation would begin in 2028. It gives time for the last franchise into the gate to pay off its expansion fee and settle in. It also allows the D-II clubs to get their acts together. These clubs are in various levels of stability. Some markets have been collecting dust for a year or more; others have appeared in back-to-back USL Cup Finals. 

You could argue that the model unfairly demotes quality clubs to a lower tier than where they currently thrive, just because of population. I will admit that the methodology could prevent a fun story — similar to that of the Green Bay Packers — from existing in Major League Soccer. Edinburg, Texas has a population of only 87,650 people, yet Rio Grande Valley Toros FC has been in the top half of USL attendance every year of its existence. Who am I to say that they belong in D-III while the Charlotte Independence (29th in 2018 USL attendance) would be better for MLS? 

Division-II franchise selection would certainly need further research and input from experts closer to that situation. You want to swap out a Richmond (44th largest U.S. MSA) for Puerto Rico or Reno (112th-ranked MSA, but tenth in USL attendance) for Calgary? Be my guest. This is just a jumping off point with the obvious, million-citizen metro areas. 

To maintain the order of the geographically-geared league, the worst three clubs (a typical standard) are not necessarily the ones that are dismissed. Similarly, the best three in Division II will not automatically go up to "The Show." Indy Eleven, North Carolina FC, and the Tampa Bay Rowdies finishing 1, 2, and 3 in the overall league table doesn't do MLS any good if their bottom feeders are LAFC, FC Dallas, and the Colorado Rapids. 

All the hard work of linking neighboring rivals would be washed away. Thus, the last place team in the East would be relegated, as would the last place team in the Central and West. You don't have to be the fastest antelope; you just have to be faster the ones right next to you. If USL/NASL/NISA wanted to continue an American-style playoff, that would be up to them. But the champion of the bracket could end up with a very hollow honor, should they fail to win their conference. The trophy doesn't equal promotion. 

I'd skip the playoffs and do a 40-game schedule with a home and road match against all 20 opponents. Essentially, it's really just one 21-team open table. The conference demarcations are solely for housekeeping at season's end; making sure each geographic conduit is satisfied. In this format, the league champion would be guaranteed advancement to MLS. 

What about the teams coming back the other direction? For me, the fearmongering about relegation doesn't add up. It's a) not an insurmountable hand to be dealt, and b) well within each owner's control to avoid. I don't think Chelsea or Manchester United are ever nervous about being sent to the Championship. The word has likely never been uttered in their respective front offices. So why would an Atlanta, backed by some legitimate NFL coffers, be in any more danger than England's "Big Six"? 

Those against the concept use the wrong clubs for their examples. Instead of Atlanta or Seattle, envision the year 2030 in vapid Bridgeview, Illinois. Picture a half-empty 20,000-seat Toyota Park (naming rights likely dropped), looking every bit of a weathered 25 years old. The team is lousy and ten franchises in Division II are making more money than the Fire. Darwin would be livid if Major League Soccer didn't allow the natural order of things to run its course. It's not like relegation is a lottery; teams inflict their own wounds. Don't be terrible or else you deserve the fate.   

Relegated MLS owners will have no leg to stand on should they complain of their fate. You won't catch an Premier League owner crying when his/her franchise values take a dip by falling outside the top 20. And those clubs have far superior values to lose — the type that isn't illicitly propped up by their women's national team success

The Championship succeeds because the clubs' infrastructure is one short renovation project away from being HD camera ready — if that moment ever comes around. Every opening day in England's soccer season, 24 hopeful clubs begin a quest (with equal chances) to join the Premier League that following year. In that, their Tier 1 is not really a 20-team outfit. One could argue it is 44 deep, whittling away qualified teams over the course of the season until 17 are deemed safe. The next six clubs are looked at as interchangeable parts; soccer's equivalent to a 0.0 WAR baseball player. Three swap spots with the other three and the ecosystem moves on. 

Think of my MLS proposal in that same manner and the number begins to look less like a rigid limitation. 27 is an end point, but not technically the starting sum.  

If pro/rel were to be adopted, then I could foresee Phoenix, Austin, San Diego, Detroit, Las Vegas, Charlotte, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Louisville, Indianapolis, Raleigh-Durham, St. Louis, and Sacramento ALL playing at least one season in Major League Soccer within my lifetime. They are big-money teams that could dominate Division II. Thus, the expansion process never really needed to get this ugly. There were enough chairs for everyone this whole time?! 
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CHAPTER X

Enough with the college dissertation. Let's dissect how this model would operate. If you stuck with me this long, your reward is a little Show & Tell: 
I'll be using this map, which depicts Saint Louis FC as the 27th (and final) franchise in the league. I see the red dots like a word search, using long ovals to link three near each other. Those are the divisions. The mock schedule is for the year 2022; the following is how it was constructed.

Step 1: Set the rotation for who hosts who among the non-conference divisions. 

This move assures everyone in the Colonial Division, for instance, plays LAFC at home. It keeps things fair for not just those in the Colonial, but also the Gold Coast. LAFC won't be the only one in its division flying to Foxborough in 2022; so too will the Earthquakes and Galaxy. In 2023, the direction of these flights would flip.  
Step 2: Set up the fixture parameters. 

Step 3: Lay out the teams on the preset game board

It only took about two years to perfect, but I think I'm as close as I can get. The bye weeks cascade down the matrix, with one right off the bat for over half the league. This soft opening puts the spotlight on the best teams from the previous year to kick off a new campaign. 

Each club is awarded three byes. Thanks again to the NFL, our culture is tolerant and mindful of off weeks. To hear "Inter Miami doesn't play this week" is no different than hearing "It's the Dolphins bye week." There's no outrage. It's more of an "Oh yeah" and casual scoreboard watching across the league. Remember, the club you support can't lose on a day they don't play.

The only thing that a bye week ever negatively affects is Decision Day. I don't see this as a tremendous issue. Not everyone played on Decision Day this year, nor in 2007 (13 teams), 2009 (15 teams), and 2012-14 (19 teams). This is actually old hat for the league. My system even improves the playoff odds for that lone team left out of the final regular-season weekend. That club has their last match bumped back to the Wednesday before Decision Day, meaning the playoff rust can never be more than ten days old.   

Something else to look out for: I also did away with draws, but only for division matchups. If you are going to be revolutionary, you might as well test something out so FIFA can do better in crowning its major champions.   

Here is the master schedule, page 1 of 3. Sorry, I'm not going to just give away the store. I'll mail you a spiral-bound 11x17 if you'd like.   

Step 4: Use the NFL model and set up a regimented grid of "windows" for television viewership.

Picture the second leg of a CONCACAF Final on Wednesday, May 25, 2022 — in which an MLS club brings home the hardware. Then, you piggyback that success into Memorial Day weekend days later. You have Columbus v. Dallas (Pioneer Cup), Miami v. Orlando (Florida Derby), and Vancouver v. Portland (Cascadia Cup) among the core games played that Saturday. Come right back the next day with the National Game of the Week: Kansas City v. St. Louis (Border War). Hold back two more matches for a Memorial Day double-header of Toronto v. Cincinnati (Trillium Cup) and Seattle v. San Jose (Heritage Cup). This is the level of entertaining matches one can expect each week in this model. 

A National Game of the Week becomes the MLS version of Monday Night Football. Running up against baseball in the summer, the Sunday late-afternoon start fits nicely after most early MLB games, and prior to the solo Sunday Night Baseball tilt on ESPN. How cool would it be for Saint Louis FC to host the Chicago Fire at 4:00 p.m. CT on July 24, 2022, with the Cubs also visiting the Cardinals that weekend? Whether the baseball game was the national broadcast or not, that Sunday series finale would either be over or hours from first pitch when the soccer match kicked off. It makes the multi-sport spectator brace a true (and epic) possibility. And by no means would St. Louis be the only city granted this opportunity. It's just the first and obvious one that comes to mind.


Step 5: Identify the best primetime matches each week.

This is prescribed in an advance to assure that each club hosts at least one such contest. All but five of the games [below] are between teams in the same division, meaning 88.7% of the national broadcasts cannot end with the dreaded tie. You want that captive audience? No more* Games of the Week culminating in a nil-nil draw, with teams calling it quits after 90 minutes. * Still an 11.3% chance

Contemporary hockey hands out a consolation prize. You can leave a building after tasting defeat with points gained. That's crazy. Losing on planet Earth is worth nothing. With my model, win in whatever fashion you'd like to collect the three points. Lose and enjoy those zero points; regardless of the loss' appearance, any overwhelming stat advantages, or length of time the match stayed level. Extra-time heartbreak is aptly named. 

Network program directors should assume every National Game of the Week will require the shootout (first) and extra time (second). If the match is settled within regulation, time for a postgame show is built right into the allotted window. A studio show can use the void left from no "overtime" — to run their highlights and analysis. This program can run straight through to end of the scheduled match telecast. In this, extra time would never be seen as a burden that runs beyond what the TV Guide promised. Thanks to dependable start and ends times, soccer broadcasts can become even more of a favorite among network executive. 

Research would have be conducted to show what that maximum air time should be. It would be the sum of a full 90 minutes, plus a rarely-seen extreme amount of stoppage time, the league-mandated half-time, an above-average shootout length, and the 15-minute ET. Whatever it ends up, it'll still be quicker and easier to plan around than Yankees/Red Sox. My guess is 3 hours and 15 minutes. And that doomsday scenario would still come with a small buffer for a booth sign-off after the final whistle. Roll credits; next show is on time. 

Get an injury-free, low-foul regulation result and MLS Rewind would be given a full hour-long show to jump around the league's news. Taylor Twellman can stretch to fill that time with ease. The excitement of watching a great extra-time match, won on a late golden goal, would ease the blow of that same show being condensed to eight minutes. Win-win.

Step 6: Present fans with a better All-Star Game.

Throughout the history of North American professional sports, All-Star Games have had various formats. I have defined them as:
  • Internal: the best players in one conference/league playing the best in the other 
  • Internal Hybrid: a single team from inside the league versus the best players from the rest of the teams
  • External Hybrid: a single team from outside the league against the best players from inside it
Internal models convey the most strength and stability in a league. It proclaims "There is enough talent and star power within our rosters to create a truly entertaining event." However, this model takes time for leagues to establish the required depth in quality. It took the NHL, for instance, 22 years of an internal hybrid All-Star Game before they finally introduced an internal contest (1969). And even then, they still had some occasions of NHL All-Stars v. the Soviet national team. Today, they are the new gold standard in making the exhibition fun while being taken serious by all parties. 

It took the NFL five years of internal hybrid All-Star Games — and an eight year hiatus — to iron out the current Pro Bowl format (1950). Major League Baseball went on without a "Midsummer Classic" until 1933. But like the NBA (1951), MLB got it right — conference/league v. conference/league — from the beginning. After starting with such a model in 1996, MLS now finds itself as the only pro sport in the U.S. still using a hybrid All-Star Game of any kind. 

It shouldn't come as that much of a surprise that Major League Soccer's All-Stars have a winning record (8-7) against some of the most storied European clubs in soccer history. This is due, in large part, to the visiting club's need to travel across the ocean. And their level of preparation is equivalent to an MLB club during Spring Training or NFL team in mini camp. 

If the MLS roster wins, detractors are quick to say: "It took the combined talent of an entire league just to beat an opponent that is in preseason form and fitness." This only gets worse if the international side is down a few of their best players. If the MLS All-Stars lose, the haters are given even more fuel to utter things I cannot repeat here (other than #JokeLeague). 

During the mid-90s, NFL Europe's All-Stars might have been able to beat the Denver Broncos — if the exhibition was held in Germany on a random July day, with John Elway nursing an injury at home. And if that would have happened, so what? Would NFL Europe have gained any more credibility from the sport's faithful? Would the loss mar the Broncos in any way?

The event is clearly a reach for a revenue spike at the gates; using the foreign clubs that many American soccer fans love far more than what's right under their nose. But, with the growth of the International Champions Cup (ICC), supporters can now get their fix in other places. The summer of 2018 saw 15 American venues host tune-up matches played by 18 top clubs from six overseas leagues. This total will only continue to rise. 

By 2022, it will be beyond time for MLS to cleave off this dependence and show a little more self-respect. Return the focus of the league's celebratory day to the league and not on Real Madrid gracing us with their presence. It's not a charity event or a pity party. The MLS players deserve to be treated like All-Stars and not a Washington Generals-esque side show. Shine the light in on what you have domestically. Oh, and copy and paste that glorious page from the NHL playbook.  


Step 7: Reference the table for naming the winners of each division.

The single Wild Card component keeps more teams alive for longer. Entering the last week of this simulated season, six clubs that ultimately missed the playoffs still had a shot. The fact that the Wild Card can come from any of the nine divisions means the scoreboard watching is coast-to-coast. On Decision Day, Portland and Chicago both needed a result — paired with a road victory for Houston in Dallas. That is great theater. Adding more than one Wild Card throws a bit of a wet blanket on this drama. Those in Major League Baseball's WC1 position experience the ultimate kiss of death: Treated like second-class citizens, but comfortably in the playoffs at home. Give me the one-and-only Wild Card that knows it squeaks into the tournament with the hardest row to hoe.   

A former MLS manager once told me: "With a two conference system, it makes it hard to stay interested in the standings because it's just about staying above the black-lined playoff qualification. Turning this system into a more regional conference format is a fantastic way to combat this."


Step 8: Sort everyone from top to bottom, settling any/all necessary ties in points.

The beauty of a schedule where everyone plays everyone else is that you never have to go to things like strength of schedule or opponent's winning percentage to make the tough calls. Division record is passed over as criteria in determining overall league seeding; 1) Highest Overall Point Total, 2) Head-to-Head Record — if tie is between just two clubs, 3) More Total Wins, 4) Greater Total Goal Differential.

Note for tiebreakers outside of the conference: Emphasis on the regular season is ever-present. A single early match — between members of different conferences — could determine who takes the league-wide Wild Card and who finishes 10th. True, the teams would be vastly different at season's end than they were when they met, and the home-field advantage would have tipped the scales to one side, but this model aims to settle everything on the pitch. That is something players and managers in all sports clamber for.

When I pitched this to someone higher up at the USSF, they replied: "I think your tenth playoff spot being up for grabs anywhere in the league is going to make Decision Day the truly nationwide watch party MLS has always hoped to have."



As for the new manner in which I'd like to see CONCACAF Champions League positioning awarded, here is my hierarchy. Notice the importance placed on the U.S. Open Cup. Let's make that tournament really mean something again. 

Step 9: Roll out a shiny new MLS Cup Playoff format.

What do Americans (and Canadians) really want out of their brackets? Do we tune in to see the preemptive favorites meet? If that were the case, we'd collectively lobby for the removal of rounds or crown a champion in the regular season. Nah, we want a blend of parity and Cinderella stories. In 2018, the beautiful chaos is playing out to a "T" once again. The Knockout Round saw three of four road underdogs advance. Now, as the Conference Semifinals enter their second legs, the number one seeds in both East and West (New York Red Bulls and Sporting Kansas City) find themselves in grave danger. Is there any other kind?  

But, we do still want our champion to be deserving; be able to stand up against all other greats in the history book. The first desire pushes brackets to include more potential "busters". The second pulls brackets in tight. The first downplays the importance of the regular season. If nearly everyone qualifies to a place where records get reset to 0-0, and anything could truly happen, then playing your stars in every non-playoff game isn't a necessity for coaches/managers. When said talented players only come to town once — and fans watch them sit instead of play — the riot-level frustration is palpable. 

The flip side of the coin: Constrict the size of the playoff pool and half the league will be all-but-eliminated by the All-Star Game. Watch that regular-season attendance dip down the stretch. 

So where is that equilibrium? I believe it is this: Two play-ins add some fun single-elimination matches early. But none of the teams competing in that round expect to figure in the semifinals or final. This is the "just happy to be there" crowd. However, winning it all from this position is laid out for someone to make that epic made-for-Hollywood run; no different than if Columbus were to see it through this year. 

In essence, the Knockout Round is there to burn two cards and start the real tournament with a stacked eight-card deck — what the inception of the MLB Wild Card Game aimed to do. From there, the re-seeded nature of the quarters and semis allows the cream a chance to rise to the top. Here's the "we're the best and out to prove it" section. I took away the two-legged structure of the current format's middle section. It is strange to have single games start the process, switch to two, and then finish back at one. Change in this department is definitely coming.   

In my proposal, conference champions are granted the upper hand on all other division winners for the work they were able to accomplish in the regular season. Geographic supremacy protects them from slipping outside the top three seeds. Much like the NBA (prior to 2015), the 4 seed can sometimes finish with more points than the 3. Even though commissioner Adam Silver did away with this quirk, I like it. 

Every franchise kicks off the season with the same set of rules and same opportunities to handle the necessary business. Hence, you properly reward those that win a conference. If there's no top-seed protection, eliminate the distinction altogether. Why raise a banner for something that doesn't get you any sort of postseason advantage? Looking at you, Nashville

Overall, equality in geographic representation does not overpower this bracket's desire to showcase the best teams in the league. Three (or even all four) teams in the semifinals could theoretically hail from the same conference. Unlikely, but two members of the same division could even square off for the title. Hey, it was good enough for the 2012 BCS National Championship

This model recognizes that not all division winners are created equal. More points in a season treats you better, but it doesn't mean you truly are. Rather than protecting top seeds in half a bracket with familiar foes, this proposal throws challenges at teams from anywhere.

Other North American professional sports leagues have proven that a pre-arranged two-party finals structure (i.e. Super Bowl, World Series, Stanley Cup Final, NBA Finals) does not always provide the highest-quality conclusion. If one of the two entities is suffering a downturn in quality teams, then the "real" championship could play itself out in a semifinal (ex: 2007 ALCS). This MLS bracket aims to prevent that.

It all culminates with that glorious winner-take-all MLS Cup. Sure, it's not the best way to settle the grand debate, but there's a few reasons this standalone game is a must to remain: a) Our Super Bowl culture can't stomach an anticlimactic "big" game that only sets up a bigger game. If it's not an established best-of-seven series, multi-game championships don't work. b) Heritage/consistency, c) Ending the season before it's damn-near Christmas, d) The previous two rounds give the deserving clubs plenty of opportunities to get themselves to the final. Thus, it should be the best two clubs in the end. A coin-flip outcome is expected whether it's a home-and-home or single match, so market it as a solo to-do.    

If you're wondering what in the world that STL FC logo is, the full design explanation can be found below the fold in one of my recent articles.
Step 10: Link the season up with the 2022 World Cup.

The debate can also rage on as to whether or not Major League Soccer needs to adopt the international calendar — running operations from August through to May. I'm not here to say they should or shouldn't. But, for 2022 at least, the league is in the catbird seat. They unequivocally have a schedule structure that is better off than any other domestic league in the world. That's because a little get-together known as the World Cup is changing its tried-and-true summer configuration, due to Qatar's extreme desert heat. Look at how the final rounds of the MLS Cup Playoffs coincide with that global event. I bet a few casual fans — caught up in the wave of universal soccer love during World Cups — will tune into a domestic title game on the Saturday before it kicks off. 


Step 11: Save the owners money on travel expenses.

Work smart, not hard. By keeping the focus on the pod concept, the cross-country trips are severely cut down. Having said that, each franchise visits all others every two-year cycle. It's really not location restricting more than it is being efficient with the process.

A league source told me: "The number one thing that foreign stars like [Steven] Gerrard, [Thierry] Henry, and Beckham have said is that the travel involved with MLS is absolutely exhausting. The country is bigger than nearly all of Europe. It needs cut down to manageable distances."

Here are your [more] manageable distances.

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CHAPTER XI

At present, 57% of the U.S. Men's National Team plays its club ball overseas. Don Garber should be very pleased with that 43% that is "his." 

I am a staunch believer that best players in our country should aim to leave — with the caveat that there is significant playing time awaiting them on that other side. To fully develop, young American players require actual minutes on the pitch versus sitting on some bench in the German third division. Going over just to collect on the status surrounding European football doesn't do anybody any good. Supreme technical aptitude and world-class pressure situations are the items that Major League Soccer cannot provide. But, if you're not going to build upon either of those attributes, then stay local.  

Thus, there will always be a blend of MLS and foreign-league players. By their very nature, the young studs — legitimately playing for clubs abroad — should be the heavy lifters for the national team. But there is still extreme value in what Garber & Co. has established. The next World Cup shall atone for the sins of 2017 CONCACAF qualifiers. And the lion's share of the grit that belongs to this reborn USMNT is an MLS product. With a USSF that is still in turmoil, his league has been a stabilizing beacon. A deep run by the U.S. in Qatar '22 would have Garber's fingerprints all over the blueprint. It could be viewed as one of his finest accomplishments.    

In large part, it's because his Homegrown Player Rule has been successful at satisfying the needs of that in-betweener (honestly too good for MLS, but not quite ready to be a consistent Bundesliga or EPL contributor). As a big fish in a little pond, you get to taste that confidence-boosting success. Funny how seeing the ball go in the back of the net, at any level, breeds this perception that it can be done anywhere. And the reps are worth their weight in gold. You get to always train with the first team, with a very good chance of an aging legend is among that company. 

Speaking of said Designated Player: Isn't that guy way past his prime? Absolutely. But who in the top flight of Azerbaijan or Cyprus can match the name recognition of a Zlatan Ibrahimovic or a Wayne Rooney? Recently, Antoine Griezzman became the latest to announce a desire to end his career in America. Superstars want to be in the United States — for reasons that far exceed having any playing skills left in the tank. That is the social currency that is worth the most in Major League Soccer today. It is as popular as ever, which is to say that Garber (and bringing it full-circle to Beckham) blazed the right trail. 

I say all this to say: There are bright spots wherever you turn with MLS 2.0. Since taking office in 1999, the league has grown in every unit of measure a league can: dollars, players, viewers, and franchises. I'd hate for that last one to be the inflection point on his achievements. 

Since the day this proposal was completed, I never knew how to properly disseminate it. On February 27, 2017, an 18-page "booklet" was mailed to anyone and everyone MLS affiliated. [Crickets chirping] 

Since no one responded, a novella on this platform became my best follow-up solution, but took me nearly a year to write. I would add new information as it developed; Chapter I became an evolving prologue that aimed to stay topical. The research in my proposal occasionally required a revision or two. I used to freak out that what I believe is an objectively sound business plan wasn't getting into the hands of any MLS officials. In my head, the expansion window was closing and if I missed my shot to change minds, there would be no recourse available. 

These days, I'm far more at peace. This plan has no rush for me to get it executed. Its shelf life for success is nearly infinite. I can place the message in the bottle and set it out to sea without any sense of urgency. I'm curious as to how well an organic drip promotion of this piece does. Social media sharing might just take it to the very eyes who need to read it most. 

In the meantime, I know very well 28 franchises will be formally announced. But, like a court ruling, no business decision is immune to being overturned. 

If I were commissioner after Don Garber, and I inherited his 28-team mess, my first move would be to shrink the league back to 27 immediately. That first season on the job would result in one relegated team, without anyone being promoted. 

But please do not misconstrue the many, many words in this piece; disagreeing with a singular decision does not tarnish my perception of an entire career. The recent National Soccer Hall of Famer has done tremendous work for the growth of Major League Soccer. This is not an indictment on the totality of Garber's legacy. It is, however, a prediction that the final note of his swan song will be a sour one. While there's still time, I'm doing everything in my power to make that not the case. It may come out as crass, but so is pushing your friend out of the way of an impending bus. 

Garber's tenure does not have to end this way. The irony of ironies is that he likely wants 28 to be the number he's most remembered for. Unless plans are changed, I think he will get that wish granted... but not for the reason he intends.  

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