MLS expansion boom continues at unprecedented rate in modern sports

Sacramento - 2019 - map

And then there were 29. Soon, there will be 30. Major League Soccer continues to grow at a staggering rate for modern sports leagues.

Sacramento was awarded team No. 29, becoming the latest city to win an MLS expansion team after years of trying. As a result, the league's continental footprint continues to grow, adding a fourth club in California in a city that has long hoped to make the jump.

In 2009, MLS was made up of 15 teams. It has nearly doubled in size in a decade. 

MLS Expansion

Here's a timeline of the latest expansion clubs which have joined the league beginning in 2010: 

  • 2010 (16 teams): Philadelphia Union
  • 2011 (18 teams): Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps
  • 2012 (19 teams): Montreal Impact
  • 2015 (20 teams): NYCFC, Orlando City
  • 2017 (22 teams): Atlanta United, Minnesota United
  • 2018 (23 teams): LAFC 
  • 2019 (24 teams): FC Cincinnati
  • 2020 (26 teams): Inter Miami CF, Nashville SC
  • 2021 (27 teams): Austin FC
  • 2022 (29 teams): St. Louis, Sacramento

Expansion in other pro leagues

So how does MLS expansion compare to what has occurred in other professional team sports? 

Major League Baseball (MLB):

Between 1961 and 1969, MLB added nine teams. But in the 50 years since 1969, baseball has grown by just six more teams, including most recently in 1998, to bring their grand total to 30 teams.

National Basketball Association (NBA):

Since four teams joined as part of the 1976 NBA-ABA merger, the league has added just eight new franchises. The New Orleans Pelicans were the most recent expansion side to join back in 2002, becoming the league’s 30th team. 

National Football League (NFL):

Like the NBA, the NFL had a wave of teams added in a merger with another league, officially merging with the AFL in 1970. Ten teams were added that season and the league has grown by just six more teams since 1970 to take their total to 32.

National Hockey League (NHL):

Building on the "original six" from 1942-43, the NHL’s expansion began in earnest in 1967 when they doubled in size to become a 12-team league, though one of those teams is defunct today. After adding 10 more teams in the 1970s to take their total to 21 teams, the NHL has added another 11 franchises. Behind MLS, the NHL has experienced the most recent expansion among major pro sports leagues, with the Las Vegas Golden Knights becoming the 31st franchise in 2017. They will add a 32nd, Seattle, in 2021.

How expansion clubs have changed MLS

The cities and organizations joining MLS are not just helping the league grow, but they're also changing it with their distinct ideas, identities and supporter cultures. Different cities experience soccer in different ways.

Toronto FC supporters are widely recognized as having changed supporters culture in MLS, even as the team got off to a rocky start on the field in its first few seasons. Seattle Sounders supporters followed and quickly became renowned for their passionate support. A few years later, Orlando City SC ushered in a new era of safe standing for the most ardent supporters, creating a buoyant wall of purple behind one of the goals. 

And then there are the new traditions that are emerging with every new club, from the singing of Wonderwall in Minnesota to the Victory Log chainsaw celebration in Portland.

On the field, each new team has also developed its own philosophies for running a club: The Philadelphia Union built one of the first residential player academies in MLS, while NYCFC have leveraged their international scouting prowess City Football Group.

Atlanta United broke transfer record after transfer record, while setting attendance record after attendance record since joining in 2017. They made us rethink just what’s possible for an expansion team and how success can come quickly. LAFC took that model, as well as the safe-standing which today houses The 3252 at their state-of-the-art stadium, and they exploded in 2019, setting a league record for points.

Soon, it’ll be Sacramento’s turn to raise the bar.