By Chris Smith.
Few words have changed the Major League Soccer landscape more in recent years than “expansion”.
From the Seattle Sounders juggernaut to Atlanta United’s 2018 MLS Cup-winning side, and not forgetting LAFC’s Supporters’ Shield winners last season, who set the regular-season points record (72), new teams entering the league have brought fresh blood and innovated how MLS sides find success. As a result, the more established sides like LA Galaxy and DC United have struggled to keep up.
FC Cincinnati joined up in 2019, while Nashville SC and David Beckham’s Inter Miami also entered the league this season. All three have endured tough starts to life in MLS but hopes are incredibly high surrounding the trio that they can follow the path of those before them while helping increase the sport’s profile in the United States.
As the world fights its way out of the troubles caused by the coronavirus pandemic, most sports are back on both in the United States and around the globe. Major League Soccer is no different, returning to our screens with the unique, one-off ‘MLS is Back’ tournament, held exclusively at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex down in Orlando.
We’ve already seen our fair share of drama on the pitch and just as is the case with the Premier League, Bundesliga and other global soccer leagues, there thankfully appears to be little lasting damage from the economic effects of COVID-19.
However, that isn’t to say the virus hasn’t brought disruption and that can certainly be felt by the next clutch of teams due to join MLS: Austin FC, the newly-named Charlotte FC, St Louis and Sacramento.
While Austin FC remain on track to start play in the 2021 season, even recently securing their first signing in the form of Paraguayan forward Rodney Redes, the same cannot be said for the other three teams, who simply aren’t at the same stage of development.
Charlotte FC were due to join up in 2021 but have seen that pushed back to 2022, while St Louis and Sacramento will become MLS sides in 2023 instead of 2022.
While disappointing news for those involved, it is a sensible approach taken by MLS commissioner Don Garber, who is keen to allow these new teams time to not only become financially stable, but also complete essential work such as the building of a stadium or constructing their playing squads. After all, the looming shadow of the NASL still hangs over American soccer and Garber has always done his utmost to avoid a repeat of that failure.
“We have always taken a thoughtful and strategic approach to our expansion planning and have delivered successful launches for every new club,” Garber said recently.
“It is important for each club to take the necessary time to launch their inaugural MLS seasons the way their fans and communities deserve. With the extra year to make up for what has been a challenging 2020, these teams will be well-positioned for their debuts and for long-term success.”
Charlotte FC have been moving ahead with building their club regardless, officially announcing their name and unveiling their club crest recently.
We are Charlotte FC.
Welcome to the club. pic.twitter.com/LVXW5RaYxO
— Charlotte FC (@CharlotteMLS) July 22, 2020
However, club owners, Tepper Sports and Entertainment (TSE), have stressed they are fully behind MLS’ decision to delay welcoming Charlotte FC into the league, insisting an already-tight deadline simply became unrealistic in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“After a lot of discussion with Major League Soccer, we are confident it is in the best interest of our club and our supporters to take additional time to ensure a successful inaugural season,” said TSE president Tom Glick.
“When we were awarded the team in December [of 2019], we knew we were on an extremely tight timeline to begin play in 2021 but we were ready to meet that challenge. Unfortunately, the CVID-19 pandemic has impacted several of our essential initiatives. We have made huge progress in the last few months, but having additional time to build is important.”
For now, the focus for MLS remains solely on the field as we eagerly await the outcome of what has so far been a hotly contested return to play in Orlando.
But rest assured, once these new expansion teams do join the league, they’re likely to have the same paradigm-shifting effect as those that came before them.