24 Thoughts: MLS expansion candidates, inside the training compensation debate, rebirth in Columbus

Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber speaks at a news conference in Los Angeles, Thursday, April 18, 2019. Sacramento and St. Louis have been invited to submit formal bids for franchises as the MLS Board of Governors formally unveiled plans Thursday to expand to 30 teams. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
After announcing Wednesday that MLS would expand to 30 teams, commissioner Don Garber invited Sacramento and St. Louis to submit formal bids. (Alex Gallardo/AP)

Doug McIntyre’s weekly MLS column, 24 Thoughts, parses through the latest insights and inside info from around American soccer.

The idea for this week’s column was to focus on two MLS originals – the Columbus Crew and FC Dallas – that have started the 2019 campaign well despite changing coaches during the offseason. Two bombshells that dropped Wednesday night altered those plans.

Following the MLS Board of Governors meeting in Los Angeles, the league formally announced that it will expand to 30 teams. The news came with little warning, but the substance of it was not a major surprise. During his annual State of the League address in December, commissioner Don Garber said he had “no doubt” that MLS would grow beyond the previous stated threshold of 28 clubs. It wouldn’t be a surprise if MLS got to 32 within the next decade. The NFL is already there. The NHL will add a 32nd team in 2021.

MLS has already committed to Austin, Miami and Nashville, bringing the total to 27 in the coming years. Wednesday’s news release stated that the circuit’s 28th and 29th sides will be revealed by August’s All-Star game in Orlando, and that the expansion fee for those entries will be a cool $200 million per.

At this point, it would be shocking if Sacramento and St. Louis don’t lock up those two slots. “Both [the] Sacramento and St. Louis groups will be asked to make formal presentations to the MLS expansion committee to address each bid’s final stadium plan, corporate commitments, the composition of the respective ownership groups, detailed economics on funding, strategic plans for fan development, commitments on player development and details on community programs,” Wednesday’s statement read.

24 Thoughts

1. Assuming Sacramento and St. Louis get in, where does the league go for No. 30? Detroit and San Diego have been in the mix in the past and, with strong potential ownership groups in both cities, could be again. Of those two, Detroit has a significant edge. Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores teamed with his NBA rival Dan Gilbert (Cleveland Cavaliers) on Detroit’s previous bid, which fell apart after plans to build a soccer specific stadium were abandoned. But with Atlanta and Seattle thriving in massive NFL venues, and the Chicago Fire apparently headed back to Soldier Field, playing in one isn’t necessarily a deal breaker. “They have come together to retrofit Ford Field, which could make it very MLS-ready,” Garber said last year of the Gores-Gilbert bid.

2. One spot I wouldn’t rule out for the 30th team is North Carolina. It’s always been a hotbed for the sport at youth level, and just last month the owner of second-tier North Carolina FC, Steve Malik, proposed a $150 million stadium project to lure an MLS team to Raleigh. Malik’s North Carolina Courage is also one of the better-supported clubs in the NWSL.

3. Down in Charlotte, the Carolina Panthers’ new owner has expressed his desire to bring an MLS team to the state’s largest city. “We’re well aware of David Tepper’s interest,” Garber said at last year’s All-Star game in Atlanta. “We’re intrigued by Charlotte.”

GELSENKIRCHEN, GERMANY - APRIL 17: Weston McKennie of Schalke controls the ball during a training session at FC Schalke 04 training center on April 17, 2019 in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. (Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images)
MLS teams will now seek training compensation when prospects like Weston McKennie, who left FC Dallas's academy to sign with German club Schalke in 2016, bypass the domestic league and turn pro overseas. (Getty)

4. Here’s the other big news: For the first time in the league’s 24-year history, MLS clubs will seek training compensation and solidarity payments from foreign clubs that sign players developed in MLS academies. In other words, the days of a team like FCD developing a player like current U.S. men’s national team standout Weston McKennie only to lose him to German Bundesliga mainstay Schalke for nothing three years ago – won’t happen in the future.

5. “It’s our view that long term, the success of our league is to a large extent going to be a function of the quality of the domestic player pool,” league EVP of competition Todd Durbin told Yahoo Sports. “We realized that we’re not going to be able to keep increasing investment in development if those players are going to leave to pursue their careers overseas. This is going to help support those efforts.”

6. The response from the MLS Players Association, which has long opposed training compensation and solidarity payments on the grounds that it would harm its members, was scathing. The union called the move “a step backward for the development of soccer in the United States and Canada.

“It is an effort by the league to inhibit player choice, does nothing to address the development of youth soccer, and makes plain MLS' selective application of international rules to suit its own agenda,” the union’s statement continued. “Despite claims to the contrary, this move is not about improving youth development. Rather, it is simply about trying to force players to sign with MLS by limiting opportunities abroad.”

7. The players’ main concern doesn’t revolve around blue-chip prospects such as McKennie. It’s not like Schalke wouldn’t have signed the midfielder had it been required to pay Dallas’ academy, say, $50,000 in training compensation. (Alphonso Davies’ youth club in Edmonton did in fact get a check when Bayern Munich spent almost $20 million to buy the Canadian teenager’s rights from the Vancouver Whitecaps last summer.) Instead, their worry is that low-profile players won’t be able to leave for lesser leagues as easily, effectively removing what little leverage they had with MLS HQ. Next year’s CBA negotiations between the sides just got a lot more interesting.

8. It’s important to note that per FIFA regulations, this change only involves players who move abroad. American and Canadian youth clubs still won’t be able to claim training compensation for players who eventually sign professional contracts with MLS teams. However, the door is now open for that eventuality.

9. “What I will say is we’re now beginning to explore that,” Durbin said. “Not only do we need to continue to make investments, if clubs across the broader domestic youth soccer landscape are making investments and producing players that are going into our academies and eventually signing with us, we need to be aligned in that space.”

10. Training compensation and solidarity payments are a two-way street. MLS will now have to pay Central and South American clubs, which are producing an ever-growing percentage of players as the league expands, when talent from those regions enter the league. In the short term, that could help domestic players.

11. Rather than try to shoehorn reporting on both the Crew and FC Dallas into this column, we’re going to use the journalist’s coin flip (alphabetical order) and talk about Columbus here. Then, barring any other late breaking news, we’ll give Luchi Gonzalez’s team its due next week.

Jan 9, 2019; Columbus, OH, USA; New Columbus Crew SC general manager Tim Bezbatchenko and head coach Caleb Porter stand during an introductory press conference at The Ivory Room. Mandatory Credit: Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports/Sipa USA
With the club's future in Columbus now secure, team president Tim Bezbatchenko (R) and head coach Caleb Porter arrived ready to steer the Crew toward a brighter future. (Greg Bartram/USA Today)

12. The Crew sit in second place (a point behind leader D.C. United) in the Eastern Conference after seven games. Columbus, which replaced Gregg Berhalter with former MLS Cup-winning Portland Timbers coach Caleb Porter after Berhalter left for the USMNT, was first before last week’s 1-0 defeat in Montreal. What does Porter think of his start? “You always want better,” Porter said in a phone interview with Yahoo Sports on Wednesday. “Hopefully we’re just scratching the surface of the team we can be. But we’ve been getting results for the most part.”

13. That Porter ended up back in Ohio, where he led the University of Akron for six seasons and won the 2010 NCAA title before taking the Timbers job in 2012, was surprising at the time. He seemed destined to land with the Los Angeles Galaxy after being pictured with Galaxy prez (and former Indiana University roommate) Chris Klein sitting courtside at a Lakers game. “I had two really good opportunities,” Porter said. “They were very different situations, though. I made the right choice for me and my family.”

14. It had to do with what Berhalter left behind. Porter inherited a balanced and experienced roster. The small-budget Crew had made the playoffs four of the previous five years. “I haven’t made major changes because they weren’t necessary—the club has been established in certain areas,” he said. “I wouldn’t have picked the job if I didn’t believe in a lot of the same things Gregg did culturally and playing philosophy-wise.”

15. Tactically, both coaches emphasize a possession-based game, although Porter’s Crew might be a bit a bit more aggressive than Berhalter’s. I was more interested in how the two men differ on the personality side. “I’m still trying to find the differences,” keeper Zack Steffen joked. Are they really that similar? “They are very similar,” Steffen said. “They’re both very intense in their own way.”

16. It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that the Crew have taken the coaching change in stride. The team was in playoff contention almost all of last year even as the threat of relocation loomed. The club’s future in the city wasn’t sealed until after last season.

17. “This is an experienced team that has dealt with ups and downs and highs and lows and a lot of distractions,” captain Wil Trapp said. “Now that the pendulum has swung in the other direction, I don’t think it’s a factor. Of course it’s amazing for the city, the club, the fans. But for us, our approach is still just continuing to focus on our jobs.” Still, “It’s a big sense of relief for everybody: families, girlfriends, people wondering if they have to move, find a new job, whatever,” Steffen said.

18. Steffen is in an odd position. The 23-year-old presumptive USMNT No. 1 signed with Manchester City during the offseason and will head to England when his six-month loan back the Crew ends July 8.

“I’m thinking about it every day,” Steffen said. “Obviously it’s for a great opportunity and I’m excited, but it’s going to be bittersweet to work with these guys for half a season and have to say goodbye.” His teammates should be in good hands. Underrated former TFC and Orlando City starter Joe Bendik was acquired to step in when Steffen leaves.

19. Even if the U.S. reaches the Gold Cup final this summer and Steffen plays every game, he still won’t automatically qualify for a UK work permit. With the U.S. ranked 24th by FIFA, Steffen would’ve had to play in 60 percent of the national team’s competitive matches over the last two years. The best he can manage is 40 percent. “The plan is probably to get loaned out because of the whole work permit situation,” Steffen said. “But we’re still trying to figure that out.”

20. New Crew president Tim Bezbatchenko transformed Toronto FC into an MLS Cup champion after years of organizational dysfunction. Now the Ohio native is charged with leading Columbus to new heights. A new downtown stadium is in the works. The team’s current home will be the centerpiece of a new training facility.

21. “What attracted me to the project was a new ownership group with a new vision for a market that in some ways has been fighting for relevancy,” Bezbatchenko said. The grassroots and ultimately successful “Save the Crew” movement, and what it represented, also helped. “It elevated the profile of this club to a whole new level,” he said. “People are very aware of what happened in Columbus and the fact that the fans stood up and said ‘You cannot take our team.’”

22. This is still a different experience for Porter and Bezbatchenko. Win or lose, Portland and Toronto play in front packed houses. That hasn’t been the case for the Crew. “The biggest challenge is the location of the stadium,” Porter said. “You’re seeing the same thing in Columbus that you see in other markets that are on paper really good markets but don’t have stadiums in the right location. I think we’re really going to see a massive change when we get downtown. I think we’ve got a little bit of a sleeping giant here.”

23. TFC was the league’s highest-spending club during Bezbatchenko’s tenure. That probably won’t ever happen in Columbus. Bezbatchenko knows it. “It is a different project and we are going to have to win in a different way,” he said. “But I think the resources will be there. It might be a smaller market than Toronto, but there will be sufficient resources over the long term for us to compete and win trophies, and that’s what we’re here to do.”

24. Finally, multiple sources tell me that the Fire are unlikely to change their name if and when they move back to the Windy City from suburban Bridgeview. Thank goodness for that.