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MLS expansion history: Just how tough is the task for Atlanta, Minnesota?

Minnesota United FC and Atlanta United FC will debut as Major League Soccer’s 21st and 22nd member clubs when the 2017 season officially kicks off this weekend.

Fans of the newcomers will surely have noticed to their chagrin that most pundits view them as long shots for the MLS Cup Playoffs, approaching the two teams with the conventional wisdom that life is hard in Year 1.

So just what does an inaugural season in MLS look like? Here are the historical numbers – good, bad and mostly ugly – on how expansion teams have fared in league and cup play. 

Team Year Regular season Playoff finish Open Cup/ACC finish
Chicago Fire 1998 20-12-0
2 of 6 in West
MLS Cup champs Open Cup champs
Miami Fusion 1998 15-17-0
4 of 6 in East
Conf. semifinals Quarterfinals
Chivas USA 2005 4-22-6
6 of 6 in West
DNQ Fourth round
Real Salt Lake 2005 5-22-5
5 of 6 in West
DNQ Third round
Toronto FC 2007 6-17-7
7 of 7 in East
DNQ N/A; ACC founded in '08
San Jose Earthquakes* 2008 8-13-9
6 of 7 in West
DNQ First round of qualifying
Seattle Sounders 2009 12-7-11
3 of 8 in West
Conf. semifinals Champions
Philadelphia Union 2010 8-15-7
7 of 8 in East
DNQ First round of qualifying
Vancouver Whitecaps 2011 6-18-10
9 of 9 in West
DNQ Lost in ACC final
Portland Timbers 2011 11-14-9
6 of 9 in West
DNQ Second round of qualifying
Montreal Impact 2012 12-16-6
7 of 10 in East
DNQ First (semifinal) round
New York City FC 2015 10-17-7
8 of 10 in East
DNQ Fourth round
Orlando City SC 2015 12-14-8
7 of 10 in East
DNQ Quarterfinals

*This refers to the Earthquakes' rebirth; the original San Jose franchise relocated to Houston and became the Dynamo ahead of the 2006 season.

Some context here: Not every expansion team arrives to the same league landscape. It’s not hard to imagine how different MLS was as the fledgling,10-team competition that welcomed the Chicago Fire and Miami Fusion FC compared to the vastly more mature situation that NYCFC and Orlando City stepped into two years ago.

That said, the overall track record for debutants involves emotional highs followed by gut-wrenching lows, big dreams laid low by harsh reality checks. Essentially, the Fire and Sounders are the only outliers. 

We’ll just have to wait and see if ATL UTD and the Loons can buck that history.