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The Big Pitcher: Manifest Destiny Edition

An artist's rendering of Major League Soccer expansion plans (Either that or John Gast's “American Progress”)

Editor's Note: Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but It bends toward justice”. Sometimes we American soccer fans get wrapped up in the day-to-day, Monday morning quarterbacking (or centerbacking), knee-jerk reactions and miss out on the big picture. This weekly column will focus on picking out the larger themes and issues of Major League Soccer and the American game.

By Eric Betts / Senior Crystal Ball Correspondent

Wednesday’s halftime announcement that Major League Soccer was hoping to add four additional teams to the league by 2020 has set off another round of the only game more fun than the actual games: Expansion Speculation! (coming soon to specialty board game store near you!)

In less than a decade the idea of twenty teams went from a pipe dream to an upper limit to a shelf from which to pause and survey the landscape before eventually and climbing into the upper reaches where no league has gone before (hush you NASL historians). But with so many potential owners and markets chomping at the bit did anyone really think, back when NYYMCFC Blue was announced earlier this year, that Team 20 was anything other than another signpost the league would woosh right by? Of course MLS has to keep expanding; otherwise, who will host the All-Star game after Portland, Montreal, San Jose, New England (just kidding), DC, and finally a “Biggest Thing in The History of the League’s History” blowout event against Galactic Champions Manchester City in New York?

Best of all for the league it’s a painless guarantee to make once they determined they wanted to move to that number anyway. If something happens between now and then that keeps the 24th team from starting in the league until 2022, 10,000 jackasses on Twitter will point back to this moment and wonder what happened, but the near-infinite number of potential excuses for the delay will insulate the league from any serious criticism. Even the decision making process will be easy: if all else fails, try a fight to the death, a nationwide 3-on-3 tournament or have Don Garber package four golden tickets into specially marked boxes of Adidas adizero F50 cleats. 

By announcing an intent to bring so many teams in MLS gave hope to fans in nearly a dozen cities that their wait might soon be over. Mention just “Team 21” and everyone assumes Miami or Orlando, but now fans in San Antonio feel sure they’re going to get one; fans in St. Louis think fans in Detroit are holding out hope. In the 24 hours since the announcement, I’ve seen Sacramenton, San Diego, Charlotte, Atlanta, Ottawa, Edmonton, Indianapolis, and Minneapolis mentioned as possible destinations. While only a handful of all these are realistic candidates at this point the notion that there are franchises up for grabs could be a powerful motivating factor for potential ownership groups.

Even if just five of these cities end up as viable options there will still be decisions to make. For fans questions such as which fanbase deserves a team and what location would most enhance the league, both in terms of its reach on the continent and the creation of new rivalries and dynamics among the teams, are preeminent. On the league’s side the eventual destinations will instead be determined based on all the typical attributes like the owner’s deep pocketbooks, strength of a stadium plan, interest from the community and “where does David want it, again?”.

All other things being equal it seems the most likely legacy of the next round of expansion – just as the last round’s was the growth of the game in the fertile Pacific Northwest hotbed – will be an effort to reseed parts of the Great American Soccer Desert, those large swaths of the country, particularly in the Southeast without any sort of representation in the league. That for me was the most thrilling aspect of this hypothetical map that made the rounds a couple of weeks ago, seeing not just the potential for MLS growth but the knock-on effects that growth would have through the lower leagues. The possibility of teams at any level in Detroit and Cleveland, Nashville and New Orleans is exciting stuff. Hell, my 13-year-old self, trapped in small-town Alabama where the closest MLS team geographically was Columbus, would have been pretty thrilled at the idea of teams of any kind in both Atlanta and Birmingham. The idea that kids living there and in other parts of the country where previously MLS might as well have been another foreign league will have a team to follow is incredibly exciting.

Now all they have to do is find one of the commissioner’s golden tickets.

About Eric

Eric Betts is a freelancer writer who lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and his dog Lando (yup). While attending Emory University he won “College Jeopardy”.

Tags: Big Pitcher, Eric Betts, Major League Soccer

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