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MLS expansion plans extend beyond FIFA’s 20-team guideline

MLS is focused on adding a 20th team, in New York, but its expansion ambitions extend beyond that and could make it the first top-flight soccer league worldwide to add a 21st team.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber said last week the league won’t cap expansion at 20 teams.

“Our league includes two countries, massive landmass across four time zones, and I have no doubt our league will be larger than 20 teams when we’re fully expanded,” Garber said. “But at this point we don’t have a specific vision as to how many teams would be in the league at a fully expanded point, and it makes no sense for us to be thinking about that at this time.”

Dave Checketts, co-owner of Real Salt Lake and a member of MLS’s expansion committee, added, “We have perfectly defined models with the NBA, NHL and NFL. These are 30- and 32-team leagues and they work. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if we were hosting the World Cup in 2022 and had a 30-team league.”

A second team in the New York City area
would create a rivalry with the Red Bulls.

Expanding beyond 20 teams would be precedent-setting in the world of soccer. FIFA guidelines recommend that top-flight leagues limit their size to 20 teams to protect players from playing too many games. As a result, most MLS observers expected the league to replicate the 20-team structure established by elite international leagues like Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A and England’s Barclays Premier League. Instead, MLS executives appear intent on following an American sports league model and charting a course similar to the NBA, NHL and NFL.

FIFA Executive Committee member Chuck Blazer said MLS could expand beyond 20 teams while still upholding the goal of FIFA’s guidelines.

“It’s about how many games a player plays in the year, so if you can construct a scenario where the same number of games are played in divisional play and then everyone funnels up into a national championship, that could work,” Blazer said. “That’s already contemplated in the structure of the league. They have different divisions.”

MLS has an Eastern Conference and Western Conference structure. Blazer said the league could keep that structure in place and have teams play home-and-home games within the conference before starting the playoffs, thus honoring the goals of FIFA’s 20-team guideline.

“There’s no reason MLS can’t [expand beyond 20] as long as it is creative,” Blazer said.

MLS has been one of the fastest-growing properties in the North America over the last decade as it expanded from 10 to 19 clubs by adding teams in Los Angeles, Salt Lake, Toronto, San Jose, Seattle and Philadelphia. Vancouver and Portland will join the league next year and Montreal in 2012.

 Dan Hunt, vice president at Hunt Sports Group, said he and his father, Lamar, who helped found the league, often debated whether the league could support more than 20 teams.

“The point he made to me was that the U.S. is an enormous country with a very large population,” Hunt said. “You factor Canada in and the landmass, the general interest in soccer and those things lend themselves to the league growing beyond 20 teams when it’s right and proper.”

Garber said the league’s immediate priority is to add a 20th team, which he hopes will be in New York. The league remains in discussions with the Wilpons, owners of the Mets, about bringing a team to Queens. If the effort to place a team there fails, it will explore expansion in other markets such as Atlanta, Detroit, San Diego, Miami or Ottawa.

“This is a work in progress,” Garber said. “We’re still going about expansion one team at a time.”

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