Major League Soccer has been quite busy expanding: NYCFC and Orlando City FC will both join the league next year, MLS Atlanta will join in 2017, and David Beckham’s Miami franchise merely awaits a midwife. However, I am a regional chauvinist and all this East Coast love has me a bit bitter. I’m from Alaska and you become acutely aware of regionalism and the impact of distance when “normal” is broadcast from elsewhere, and travel tends prohibitive.
The game needs to grow, and for that MLS needs big markets. I completely understand NYCFC and Atlanta as business decisions, but not as soccer decisions. Unless the league believes the best way to grow the game is through intense regional rivalries, a la Cascadia. When Seattle proved such a rip-roaring success, MLS didn’t hesitate to enfranchise Portland and Vancouver. Add NYCFC to NYRB and you immediately have friction and, potentially, interest in America’s largest metropolitan market. Create, from whole cloth, a hub of soccer in Atlanta/Miami/Orlando, and hope for a Southern Cascadia. Potential rivalries seem the only catalyst for faith in stable expansion in the Southeast.
With all this expansion hullabaloo, why isn’t the West getting more love? The Western Conference is the engine of MLS’s recent success. Look at the league table, watch an RSL-LAG match. The strongest ownership groups, producing the best business models and soccer product operate in the West. While many Eastern franchises have owners who can’t fill a suburban stadium with spectators or attractive soccer.
The West embraces soccer more. It could be the lesser longevity of their professional teams, as pro baseball and football have been played back East for over a century. The Cincinnati Reds, for example, have been playing baseball since 1869, while the oldest Western MLB team is the L.A. Dodgers, who only moved in 1958 (and, of course, they belonged to someone else first, as any Brooklynite will remind you). Out West, the Sounders are absolutely Seattle’s, and older than both the Mariners and the Seahawks. Legacies such as these create a deep affiliation between a city and a team despite soccer’s persistent second-class status. And other Western cities, like Salt Lake and Portland, cherish their MLS teams as only their second professional team.
The West Coast is far less hidebound, embracing progress and multiculturalism. Multilingualism is a given out West where you rarely here, “this is America, speak English.” It is a new paradigm for soccer, that “foreign” sport, to capture the American fancy. Maybe the West is still in the flux of the melting pot, and is more ready to embrace an international identity.
It feels odd that the Western Conference, full of teams that commit to quality and are carrying the league, are rewarded by being further marginalized. The addition of NYCFC, Orlando City and Atlanta puts the league back at an even number of teams (for the first time since Montreal joined in 2012). However thirteen teams will play in the East and still just nine in the geographic West (if we consider Dallas a western city). Thus the league will have to relocate some eastern teams west, like SKC. Culturally we are used to Kansas City being “Western” (the Chiefs), but I hate when anything east of the Rockies is in a western conference. Who else will join SKC to make the West an even eleven teams? Houston, Chicago? Distance matters, and will always hinder professional teams in the Western United States. If a team like Kansas City or Houston joins the West that means MORE travel for each and every Western Conference team, and less for the Eastern Conference teams. It shrinks the geographic distance of the Eastern Conference and greatly expands that of the West. Of course, the population center of the US leans to the lesser side of the compass, but you cannot deny the advantage of shorter travel times.
Travel takes its toll. The Seahawks were a great team going into the 2012 NFL Playoffs, picked by prognosticator extraordinaire Nate Silver to win it all. But in back-to-back weeks, Seattle had to fly to D.C. and Atlanta, where they started slow and faltered. This isn’t mumbo jumbo, this is sports science. Clint Dempsey addressed this issue after his hat trick against Portland came on only two days rest after a USMNT friendly against Mexico in Phoenix. When asked if he thought he’d start against Portland despite the travel, Dempsey replied, “It’s always a tough call. Because when you do travel a lot, it was only three hours, but if it was on the East Coast, it would have been a difficult game to try and start. Because if you look at some of the players’ histories, especially Seattle’s, when they do long flights and come into games, they happen to pick up injuries.”
When it comes to expansion, MLS seems to think only size matters. Don Garber was proud to point out that Atlanta (ranked #9) is the largest remaining American market without an MLS franchise. But Phoenix is the 12th largest market and growing more rapidly than Atlanta. If we are only focused on market size, Arizona makes sense. Southern California is immensely populated and could carry a third team in San Diego. And the Bay Area could carry second team, as I am sure there are people in the Bay dying for a team that isn’t the Earthquakes.