From 2006 through 2012, Major League Soccer (MLS) has added at least one new franchise . During that time, the league increased from twelve teams to nineteen. Expansion in MLS remains a hot topic as fans and experts alike weigh in on the league’s plan to expand to twenty-four teams by the year 2020. The 20th and 21st teams have already been chosen with the announcements of NYCFC and Orlando City SC, both beginning league play in 2015. Some have scrutinized the MLS’ decision to award expansion franchises to these organizations. Many question whether NYCFC, with no plans for a soccer-specific stadium, will garner enough interest. Others question whether the club will be able to compete with the long-standing New York Red Bulls (formerly NY/NJ Metrostars, an MLS original club), financially, on the pitch, and for the loyalty of fans in an already saturated sports market.
Orlando City SC is not the first team to try their luck in building an MLS franchise in Florida. MLS entered a dark period when the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny both folded in the year 2001, leaving only ten teams for the 2002 season. When the Fusion folded, Horowitz stated, “Even the established teams- the Marlins, the Heat, the Panthers- are suffering. The fan base is very diverse. Many people simply don’t have local ties to the area and have trouble identifying with the local sports team.”
The league simply cannot afford to award expansion franchises unless the market exhibits a strong soccer culture and the ability to create a dedicated and long lasting fan base. One unique way of measuring the soccer interest in a region is through the national team call-ups. Elite soccer players are not born, they are created. A developing player will only get better by playing at high levels and against other highly skilled players. The hometowns of the players of the U.S. National Teams as well as the Under-20 and Under-18 teams help determine where top talent is being developed and where interest in soccer is strongest.
Below is a graph of the states of the hometowns of all 157 national team players called into camp this December/January. It includes the full Men’s and Women’s National Teams, Men’s and Women’s U-20s and Men’s and Women’s U-18s. This analysis does not distinguish between sexes, and as MLS teams market to both genders, the women’s teams need are included in the analysis.
The men and women at these three levels descend from twenty-eight different states, and five nations outside of the U.S. Fifteen states have sent fewer than five players to the recent national teams’ camps. From largest representation to smallest, the states that have the strongest interest in soccer, via this lens, are California (37), Florida (11), New Jersey (11), Virginia (10), Illinois (7), New York (7), Georgia (6), Arizona (5), Colorado (5), Maryland (5), Missouri (5), Pennsylvania (5), and Texas (5). (Note: seven players are from five “New England” states of the U.S).
This triggers an interesting comparison to current MLS markets in the US. Of the sixteen current U.S. based teams in MLS, twelve (including New England) are represented in the national team pool. The only MLS markets that have not sent a significant number of men and women to the national teams in these camps are Real Salt Lake (UT), Seattle (WA), Portland (OR), and Columbus (OH). In spite of their lack of representation on the national stage, each of these MLS franchises has had no problem drawing consistent interest to their clubs. In fact, some fans would argue that the strongest fan bases in the league are from Seattle, Portland, and Salt Lake City. Not convinced still? The graph below displays all 47 USMNT players from 2013 and the states in which they were raised. Smaller sample size, similar results.
Obviously, the hometowns of the entire national team pool cannot be the only consideration for establishing a professional soccer team in a region, and it would be naive to assume that the development of top soccer talent in a region translates to a successful MLS franchise. There is no direct correlation between these soccer “hot beds” and interest in MLS. However, it is hard to argue that an MLS market would not benefit if elite U.S. talent remained close to their hometown and played professionally for the local club. Current national team players such as Landon Donovan, Chris Wondolowski, and Matt Besler are testaments to the power that top local talent can have in garnering attention for an MLS market.
It is clear that MLS has done an outstanding job in establishing franchises in cities with a strong interest in the game of soccer. There is still one question left unanswered: what about Florida? A good portion of top talent seems to be coming from the state of Florida, yet the Southeast part of the nation has no representation in MLS since Miami and Tampa Bay closed down. Orlando SC clearly has local support and enough recent success to put any ideas of failure to bed. David Beckham has also been interested in adding an MLS franchise in Florida, this time in Miami. However, no one would go to a Miami soccer game just to see the owner and MLS salary cap restricts the amount of star power he can attract to South Beach. To achieve success in Florida, the organization will have to blend American talent and foreign talent, look to the MLS SuperDraft, and perhaps use big name local talent from Florida, like Eddie Johnson, to sustain long-term interest.
There is no magic bullet. Success in MLS is no Field of Dreams. The key to success is not, “If you build it, they will come.” Instead, expansion in MLS has adopted the motto, “If you build it RIGHT, they will come.”