Wiebe: Expansion rush takes MLS into new era

I came of age as a soccer fan during Major League Soccer’s expansion era. The only MLS I know is MLS 2.0. I’m spoiled rotten, and I suspect I am not alone.

On Tuesday, as 12 expansion applications flooded in from major-league caliber cities and ambitious ownership groups from just about every corner of the United States, I was reminded just how #blessed we are to be North American soccer fans in 2017 – and how much progress the league has made in such a short period of time.

Remember, just 15 years ago the dominant MLS headline wasn’t growth. It was subtraction – contraction, to be specific, in Tampa Bay and Miami. After shedding the Mutiny, by then operated by the league office, and Fusion in Jan. 2002, MLS was down to 10 teams and many on the outside looking in wondered whether the fledging league was on the brink of collapse.

"I know many out there think this is the end of Major League Soccer, and that couldn't be further from the truth,” Commissioner Don Garber told USA TODAY at the time. "It's something we feel is a new, strong beginning. We'll be a much stronger, more viable league in the future."

This week, as prospective owners jockeyed to pay out an eye-popping $150 million just for the rights to a team, Garber’s words seem downright prophetic.

The MLS Board of Governors may have opted for addition by subtraction back in 2002, but they also simultaneously set MLS up – via a new TV deal, the formation of Soccer United Marketing and the acquisition of the TV rights for the 2002 and ’06 World Cups, among other things – for the explosive growth that’s seen the league more than double in size, 10 teams to 22 from 2005 to 2017, and will see it expand to 26 teams by 2020 and 28 sometime thereafter.

In case math isn’t your strong suit, that’s 160 percent growth (and counting) in 15 years from a league many assumed was doomed from the very start. MLS is poised to nearly triple the number of teams in two decades. That’s not just mind-blowing, it’s almost unbelievable, as I’m sure the owners and fans who propped the league up in its darker days would agree.

But for those of us who arrived to the MLS party post 2005, it’s simply reality. As we grew as soccer fans, a steady march of passionate expansion markets made MLS more diverse, more entertaining and better prepared to shape the future of soccer, not just at home but around the world.

And while the owners of the league certainly helped drive that explosive growth via an unwavering commitment and unprecedented investment, don’t forget that the development and popularity of soccer in North America is ultimately your legacy too.

Yes, you. The season-ticket holders, the capos, the people who don’t miss a game, the people who go to a couple games a year, the people who catch the occasional game on TV, the soccer moms and dads, the boys and girls who look forward to soccer practice twice a week, the Twitter warriors, the reporters and media personalities, the MLS Fantasy players, the FIFA addicts, the adult-league players who take the field every weekend, every last one of us.

MLS is growing because of you, and your investment – emotionally and financially – is no less important than the millions being sunk into player development, TV rights or stadiums. The chicken comes before the egg. Without you, none of this would be possible. Without you, 12 groups wouldn’t be throwing their hats in the ring to be among the next crop of expansion sides.

Soon there will be four more cities, four more fanbases who’ll have an MLS team to call their own. This month, the MLS expansion committee, led by New England's Jonathan Kraft, will begin to review the 12 applications. By the end of the year, we’ll know teams 25 and 26.

Soccer – from MLS to USL to NASL to PDL to NCAA to grassroots and everywhere in between – isn’t going away. It’s viability on the professional level is no longer in doubt. Welcome to MLS 3.0, with 4.0 peeking over the horizon.

The only question remaining is just how far can we take this? We’re spoiled, and we should be damn proud of it.

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