On Friday, Major League Soccer kicks off its 22nd season. If it were a person, our plucky little domestic league would be a college senior by now, about to strike out on its own and stop relying on its parents. In that context, the league has matured quickly.
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MLS no longer leans on the few billionaire benefactors who kept the league going through its early years. It has a long list of suitors for new teams, ready to fork out $150 million expansion fees, plus the cost of a stadium – and, you know, actually running a team.
The circuit’s meteoric growth has shifted the narrative from questions on whether it will survive or gain more mainstream traction – both now seem like foregone conclusions – to logistical and ideological growing pains of sorts. They are good problems to have, to be sure, but here are eight pressing questions we have going into the 2017 season.
1. Is there enough talent to support 22 teams, up from 20?
It’s a question we ask every single time MLS adds a few more teams. And if MLS wasn’t a soccer league, it would probably be more acute. After all, there’s only so many places leagues like the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL can draw talent. But just about every country plays soccer, and so the international talent pool is almost bottomless. There are always more worthy players, in other words.
The process of roster building for new teams has come to appreciate this. In the expansion draft, Atlanta United and Minnesota United, the two newcomers, got to pick just five players each. In previous drafts, teams each got 10 selections.
Indeed, neither of the new teams relied much on the draft to stock its lineup, mostly going for high-upside projects instead. Atlanta then went south of the border to find key players. Minnesota brought back a fair few of its NASL-era veterans and brought home former standout Miguel Ibarra.
2. How will Atlanta United and Minnesota United fare?
It’s fairly remarkable that since Toronto FC joined the league in 2007, every subsequent addition to the league has been a success. Some have shifted the paradigm, like the Seattle Sounders and rest of the Pacific Northwest contingent. Others have merely been very solid, like the rebooted San Jose Earthquakes and the Montreal Impact. But every time that you wonder if the league has tapped all of the good markets, the next ones deliver – who knew New York had such a strong appetite for a second (more reachable) team? Or that Orlando could prove such fertile soccer ground?
From the looks of it, Atlanta and Minnesota will do just fine. Both have stadiums in the works, and Atlanta already has a staggering 30,000 season tickets sold. Minnesota has apparently shifted a super respectable 15,000.
3. What does the next round of expansion look like?
The line for the two next teams goes out the door and around the block. With LAFC already announced as the 23rd franchise and the 24th still being held for David Beckham’s forever-stalled plans in Miami, there will be two more teams starting in a few years, and two more a while after that to take the league to 28 teams.
There are no fewer than 12 markets under consideration for those four spots – or five, should Miami fall through. Charlotte, Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis, Nashville, Phoenix, Raleigh/Durham, Sacramento, San Antonio, San Diego, St. Louis and Tampa/St. Petersburg. The process of the league sifting through the pile and trying to pick the right ones will be captivating.
4. How will TAM impact the league?
Targeted Allocation Money, not to be confused with General Allocation Money, is the league’s attempt to help teams spend on their second tier of players. While the salary cap remains a paltry $3.85 million per team, the three Designated Players only count for the first $480,000 of their salaries. With TAM, however, teams can add as much as $1.2 million per year in payroll, bringing the real cap closer to $5 million, plus DP overages. As such, several teams are now over the eight-figure threshold.
While TAM usually won’t bring in big-name players, it could have as profound an impact on the league as the DPs. After all, the difference between having three strong players and six – even if some of those names might not be as well-known – is, logically, quite large when you can only field 11 players.
5. How much longer can low-budget teams compete?
In 2016, the two regular-season conferences were won by the New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas, which also won the Supporters’ Shield. Those teams also happened to have the two lowest payrolls in base salaries in the league.
That’s hardly been uncommon in MLS, where it took years for a team even carrying a DP to win the league. Sample sizes are an issue here, of course, but in 2016, New York City FC and Toronto FC became the first teams to eclipse $20 million in payroll, while eight teams were still in the $5 million range or, like Dallas, even lower.
MLS makes enormous efforts to conserve parity, but with a soft salary cap, that growing gap will eventually become hard to compensate for.
6. Is this the end of MLS 2.0?
Steven Gerrard is gone. So is Frank Lampard. And Didier Drogba. The last wave of truly big-name DP signings is already on its way out. And in its place, a very different sort of player is arriving. Players like Alberth Elis, Miguel Almiron and Albert Rusnak. They are 21, 23 and 22, respectively, and hugely coveted young players with real promise and pedigree.
The Lampardian DP has terrific value to MLS, dating back to the OG DP, David Beckham. They brought visibility and credibility. Because being a “retirement league” is better than being a league that isn’t recognized or watched at all. But teams universally eschewing that type of player for ones on the other side of their prime and with more upside than accomplishments is a good thing.
7. What about Clint Dempsey?
One of the league’s most famous and visible players missed the last 3½ months of the 2016 season, including his Seattle Sounders’ run to their first MLS Cup trophy, due to an irregular heartbeat that apparently required two procedures.
Dempsey is healthy and says he’s cleared to play in matches again. But which Dempsey will return? He turns 34 on March 9, although he had not previously shown any signs of slowing down. A healthy heart seems like an important part of a pro athlete’s body, though.
8. And how will the United States men’s national team’s busy year impact the league?
Every four years, MLS is hit with a double whammy of the bulk of the hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying and the off-year Gold Cup happening the same season. That is to say, there will be constant demands on the regular national teamers – and perhaps even those on the fringes of the team if head coach Bruce Arena takes a B-team to the Gold Cup.
The league will be off for 13 days for the group stage of the Gold Cup, but other than that, the national team core will come and go throughout the season. That didn’t used to be such a big problem. But these days, all but a half dozen presumed national teamers are active in MLS. Planning accordingly will give head coaches all over the league headaches.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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