MLS Expansion: Double-Down on PAC NW & Beyond

My local paper reports this morning that Major League Soccer’s (MLS) top officials are again eyeing the Rose City’s potential as an expansion market. While nothing definitive appears in the article- for instance, no talk of negotiations, advanced or otherwise – it’s easy to disregard this as a simple means of keeping the lines of communication open. Indeed, the official line on the visit boils down to providing MLS Commish Don Garber with a chance “to see [PGE Park] in ‘game condition’ for a significant event.”

Reality aside, however, just seeing the reefer to the headline on the top of The Oregonian’s sports section set some wheels to spinning in my head – and those along somewhat urgent lines. Between Merritt Paulson’s (perhaps throw-away) figure on what it would cost to get the Portland Timbers’ PGE Park up to MLS standards and with a Seattle team to MLS looking powerfully firm for a rumor, it occurs to me that the future is now for Portland getting an MLS team.

Let’s separate this to make it prominent: Portland should get a Major League Soccer franchise in the same round of expansion that takes in Seattle, which looks to be 2009.

Clear self-interest aside (self-interest? where!?), a couple things recommend getting the Pacific Northwest “toe” in the national footprint in place all at once. To begin, if Seattle plays in one league and Portland in another, the risk of the rivalry between them losing its bite grows with each year – e.g. Seattle gets fixated on, say, San Jose, while Portland starts worrying about Vancouver’s Whitecaps. Pull both teams into the league at once and – Whammo! – enjoy the eye-gouging basement brawl between two expansion teams already entangled in regional rivalry. Second, the simultaneous move not only folds the Pacific Northwest region into league with a bang, it essentially wraps up the Western coast footprint. After Portland, Seattle and San Jose, where else does MLS go in a 18, or even 20, team league?

The last piece provides a nice segue into the larger question of expansion: where does MLS go to get its 18 teams by 2012?

To begin, I’d hold onto the conferences to cut down on travel costs, but retain the two-conference set up (I’d also drop the number of teams that make the post-season to six, but I suspect that ain’t happening). Home-and-away series against all intra-conference teams and single games against all the teams outside conference would comprise the regular season, which winds up with a respectably tidy 25 game season (16 intra-conference, plus nine inter-conference). I’ll ignore, for now, mechanical details (why get too precise in a pipe-dream?), but here’s what I would like to see by 2012 for MLS’s national footprint.

Eastern Conference
Chicago Fire
Columbus Crew
DC United
Kansas City Wizards
New England Revolution
Philadelphia “Ben Franklins”
Red Bull New York
St. Louis “Archies”
Toronto FC

Western Conference
Chivas USA
Colorado Rapids
FC Dallas
Houston Dynamo
Los Angeles Galaxy
Real Salt Lake
Portland Timbers
San Jose Earthquakes
Seattle Sounders

As I’m seeing it, that’s a pretty nice balance; it even chucks a team or two into the middle of the country. Better still, it holds together good regional rivalries while introducing a couple others – e.g. St. Louis v. KC (and arguably Chicago); Seattle v. Portland.

Not that I get one, but that’s my vote. And getting back to the question of who comes in when, Portland coming in with Seattle means that St. Louis and Philadelphia would, or could, have to wait. I’m not as up to date on the doings in the Philly market, but a delay could be fatal to St. Louis, where, if I understand it correctly, funding for their proposed soccer-specific stadium seems contingent on getting an MLS team as a tenant. Coming from the other side, there’s the question as to whether PGE Park would be ready – in terms of both sorting out issues with “other” tenants (baseball’s Portland Beavers and Portland State University’s various teams) and dealing with the (crappy, crappy) turf and seating – by 2009. I think the best I can say there is it certainly could happen, given the political will…but that’s a hell of a given.

Still, I say we find the will and get cracking. Getting two Northwest teams in the same expansion round sure looks smart on paper.

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14 Responses

  1. For me, I’d like to see all 3 Cascadian teams move into MLS, and then for the league to get more of a presence in the Southwest (Las Vegas, e.g.), in addition to Philly and St. Louis. I think MLS can be a 20-team single table with a balanced 38-game schedule a la EPL:

    Chicago Fire
    Chivas USA
    Colorado Rapids
    Columbus Crew
    DC United
    FC Dallas
    Houston Dynamo
    Kansas City Wizards
    Las Vegas “Silver Dollars”
    Los Angeles Galaxy
    New England Revolution
    Philadelphia “Ben Franklins”
    Portland Timbers
    Real Salt Lake
    Red Bull New York
    San Jose Earthquakes
    Seattle Sounders
    St. Louis “Archies”
    Toronto FC
    Vancouver Whitecaps

  2. Lucas, God bless you for including a Vegas franchise (or does Satan get the honors on that one?). I would love to see that…though not to the exclusion of, say, Portland. If the league goes to 20 teams – and you’re probably right in implying it is – bring on Vegas. I’d be tempted, though, to add a second NYC team; it’s something about balancing LA’s two-team set up.

  3. There’s always the possibility of contraction/expansion masquerading as promotion/relegation. I.e., if RSL or KC fold, they could be relocated to San Diego or NY (though I think it’d be wise to see how the Red Bulls do attendance-wise once their new stadium is open).

    Bottom line: Vegas needs pro sports. And I’m not just saying this because I have family down there whom I visit two or three times a year.

  4. Lucas, where’s your 3rd Canadian team? It would be a shame if Montreal wasn’t considered as a possibility. The Impact already can draw upwards of 10,000 a game and have a new stadium in the works with capacity up to 17,000. A french based team could draw many potential european and african football players to the league. Not to mention the TO/MTL rivalry would be set before the first kick off!

  5. Agreed, would be great to see 20 team single table, but the TV deal runs another 6 or 7 years locked in at around $20m/yr. As a result, the importance of team owned stadiums and local TV deals adds elements any prospective owner will have to consider before committing so much money. That being said…

    mmmm, a Southwest representation?! I’m all for it!
    However, I’ll hang in for FC Phoenix. Since both Vegas and Phoenix would need a domed stadium, unless there were a radical alteration in the schedule, I think we have the fan base to support a team. We also have a domed stadium(with natural turf) to use until a SSS can be built.

    http://www.MLSPhoenixrising.com is where you can find a fan support group just waiting for a solid $$$ person to step up.

  6. @Spark: Will Montreal be able to draw good crowds in MLS? The Impact are the best attended team in USL, but they are subsidized by the gov’t of Quebec, and a healthy chunk of their tickets are given away free (I don’t have the numbers, but it’s a significant chunk). And 12K in MLS is not the same as 12K in USL. Would they give away free tix in MLS? I’d be surprised. (Also, the Impact’s biggest rival has always been Rochester, not Toronto).

    @Peter C: Definitely Phoenix and Vegas would need those nice roofed a/c stadiums (SafeCo, Minute Maid, e.g.). I haven’t been yet, but I’m dying to check out a Cardinals game in their amazing new digs.

  7. […] Jeff wrote a fantastic post today on “MLS Expansion: Double-Down on PAC NW & Beyond”Here’s ONLY a quick extractMy local paper reports this morning that Major League Soccer’s (MLS) top officials are again eyeing the Rose City’s potential as an expansion market. While nothing definitive appears in the article- for instance, no talk of negotiations … […]

  8. Why do Portland and Seattle need to be in the same league to continue their rivalry?

    I can imagine an expanded Cascadia Cup that includes Seattle, Portland, Vancouver and San Jose. Maybe it’s pre-season tournament. Or maybe pare it down to an annual not-so-friendly game between Seattle and Portland for the Cup.

    I don’t want to sound like I’m against Portland having an MLS side. Au contraire, Arto. I think Vancouver should have one too — eventually — and we could continue the Cascadia Cup based on inter-league play. But the rivalry will still be there when all the teams are in the same league again. (Of course, this assumes that Seattle will have an MLS club in 2009, which seems pretty certain.)

  9. Fair point, John in Seattle, I suppose. But I think a rivalry of that sort would be nothing like the same. (Ill-advised rant against fan-based cups deleted here; I’m not in the mood today and I think, by and large, they’re fun and harmless mini-tournaments within tournaments). Sure, it will continue to exist and will probably revive just fine if and when Portland gets an MLS team….but the intensity will also diffuse a little when Seattle plays more games against, say, San Jose for a couple years. The best rivalries are confined between two teams.

  10. Jeff Bull,
    Thinking outside the box, has anyone in Portland looked into the possibility of converting Memorial Coliseum into a SSS? I know the roof would have to come off, seats taken out and maybe one end knocked out, more seats put in, but why not look at the possibility? Its a great location for a stadium if it could be done. An inventive architect might be able to make it work!

  11. That’s pretty clever, actually, though they’d have to seriously expand the floor space as well – which you pretty much allude to with the bit about knocking one wall out. But the location is great and, because the “memorial” commemorates war dead in some way, city leaders are pretty anxious about tearing the building down. Hmm…

  12. Jeff,
    My guess is that maybe the first level of seats would have to be taken out and of course the ground level raised. You’d have to add more seats around the outside and knock out one end and extend the seats down the side. Don’t know if the site is big enough or if it is cost feasible, but maybe? Any chance you could make some inquiries to see about the possibilities? Think of watching a game there. Would be pretty cool. Great access to mass transit, freeways. Parking already there.

  13. P.S. I’d add Montreal and Rochester to your eastern conference to make 11 and Vancouver and Las Vegas to the western to make the league 22 teams. If, as you say, you go home and away for interconference then 1 game with other conference teams you’d have a 31 game season which is still under FIFA regs. Maybe substitute Raleigh Durham for one of the other eastern conference teams.

  14. Not sure who I’d talk to about that sort of thing – by which I mean the Memorial Coliseum thing – but it does sound interesting.

    As for the number of teams issue, I went with 18 as a kind of near-horizon concept. 20 or 22 will happen some day (I hope), but it’s hard for me to see that far ahead. No harm in anyone else doing it, of course.

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