Knowles: Will MLS Just Back Off?

This article starts with the news that San Diego Loyal, a USL Championship team since 2020, is folding at the end of the 2023 season. On the official website for the league, it states that an inability to find a suitable stadium to use in the future could not be overcome. With that, a club owned in part by former and current MLSers Landon Donovan and DeAndre Yedlin will cease to operate and cede the city to an incoming ownership group headed for the Major Leagues, as, on May 18, 2023, MLS announced its 30th expansion franchise, a soon-to-be team in San Diego.

This story follows on the heels of a similar one in SoCal, whereby a club that had leased their home venue from the local government was nearly forced out of their own agreement to stay there. Championship Soccer Stadium, owned by the City of Irvine in Orange County, California, has been home to Orange County SC since 2017. Around this time last year, OCSC found out that the LA Galaxy, also of MLS, were trying to find a home for their reserve team. This move, and the agreement that came with it, would have evicted the USL club and possibly led to them looking at a situation not unlike San Diego Loyal’s. Faced with this uncertainty, the club’s fans banded together and demanded the city consider their future as well. 

One scenario wound up with a happy ending – at least for 2023. It should be noted here that OCSC still does not know where they’ll be playing in 2024, or just what the LA Galaxy want with their home stadium. Perhaps they, too, will end up facing the barrel of the same gun that the Loyal were looking down. If so, that would be two independent clubs the Major League Behemoth was able to remove from their backyard in the space of a year. Luckily, I believe Orange County fans do not agree with this outcome. It should also be noted that the Galaxy play their home games at Dignity Health Sports Park, which is in Carson, California, nearly an hour away and one county over from OCSC. 

This is not to say that a similar problem with available stadiums is directly related to the downfall of the Loyal necessarily. Jeff Rueter, of The Athletic, reports that sources told him, “MLS’ decision to award an expansion franchise to an unaffiliated group in San Diego [is] a crucial factor in the club’s decision not to play on into 2024.” His story also mentions the fate of former USL club St. Louis FC, replaced in their own market with recent MLS addition, St. Louis City SC. With these stories out of the way, I will now move into an area of a lot more opinion and conjecture. That should make this more easy to pick apart and dismiss. While unfortunate, the sentiments I will express are common to people in the United States who support a local club. There will be a lot of “I feel” and “it seems like”. That’s just how it will have to be. 

The growth of the sport of soccer in the United States has been one of hope and failure, rising and falling, grassroots and big money. This cannot include an extensive list of every exhausting step it took to form the landscape we have in 2023. But, what we have now is influenced in part or whole by what came before it. The North American Soccer League of the 70s and 80s boomed and it busted, and now MLS runs its business in a way such as to avoid the pitfalls that befell those clubs from before. At least it is mostly trying to. 

With its salary cap to make sure ownership groups don’t overextend themselves and the current investment in youth academies, MLS hopes to make itself not just financially stable, but ultimately profitable and all-consuming. As a soccer fan who lives in America, who wouldn’t want that? I want our national teams to do well and, based on all available evidence, having a strong league system at home is the foremost bedrock that leads to such an outcome. Clubs are selling homegrown players for more money than they invested in establishing the youth teams in the first place. This is progress – and the sport in this country would be hurt if somehow that all went away overnight. Of that, we can be absolutely certain. 

However, MLS is now finding other ways to overextend itself. Never mind for a second that a soccer club already existed in San Diego – we’ll get back to that. Let’s look at what their announcement means for soccer in the region. With this club, MLS earned an expansion fee reported to be $500,000,000. The organization as a whole will almost assuredly put this money back into the things that make it more stable: youth academies, good stadiums, incredible broadcasting setups, and talented footballers. 

But, why are they moving into a city that already had a soccer club and not incorporating that club itself? It’s one thing to take a very good franchise from the lower leagues and ask them to join you on the top of the pyramid. FC Cincinnati is a very good example of just that situation. It’s another thing entirely to ignore local fans who are already established as supporters of a local club – for at least the second time. As it is, most American soccer fans do not care about or have a club near them to support. Whether they be children of recent immigrants with clubs in the countries their family emigrated from, or people newer to the sport who got sucked in via FIFA video games or English Premier League marketing, their intro to the Beautiful Game did not include MLS. We can all hope someday it does. 

In the meantime, there are also plenty of soccer fans in America who do support local teams. The majority of those will support clubs in MLS, due to not only in which cities MLS operates, but also the cash that allows the league to grow bigger and market itself. This is similar to there being large and well off clubs in all the major cities of all the major soccer nations in the world: Barcelona, Madrid, Paris, London, Manchester, Buenos Aires, São Paulo, and Rio. And, much like the clubs in those cities, MLS seeks to have global appeal and recognition. 

However, unlike in those other cities, there is often a dearth underneath that top level of the pyramid throughout the United States. There are many clubs in Manchester alone outside of United and City – forget about the Rotherham Uniteds, Bolton Wanderers, and others from the extended area. To take my home state of Florida, MLS operates two clubs: Orlando City and Inter Miami. Prior iterations of clubs in both of these cities – and others – have unfortunately failed. But, there is another club on the west coast of the state that is thriving without MLS, the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Potential rivalry with the other two aside, the Rowdies bring soccer to a market that otherwise would not have it. Jacksonville will soon have a club in the same league as Tampa Bay, which should allow for another rivalry to spark, hopefully drawing in even more fans. 

While a previous ownership group did try to take the Rowdies into MLS, the venture failed. That doesn’t mean the club has sputtered or disappeared by any means. On the contrary, Tampa Bay now has a very successful team both on and off the pitch, drawing more than 5,000 fans on average for the last five seasons, other than those affected by Covid. After looking at the situation in southern California, the question becomes: what is the league’s intention with teams in large markets that aren’t in MLS?

Is MLS trying to run Orange County out of town the way they did with San Diego Loyal? What will they want to do if they expand beyond 30 clubs in their top division? Do they wish to expand their reserve league and try to eat into the support for those pre-existing local clubs not in MLS? Do they think this will earn them more fans to follow that path?

Reports abound of potential new ownership groups in cities across the country without a professional soccer team. Jacksonville, Florida, was one until recently. Des Moines, Iowa; Spokane, Washington; Huntsville, Alabama; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, were all similar. There are soccer fans in and around those cities. Could someone tap into that? Could someone get them to come watch local games instead of just waking up early for the EPL or La Liga? That would, of course, be great for soccer in America. The more fans, the more investment – and the more investment, the better the players at the top level. Who could argue with that expansion of the game we love? (Certainly not me; no one look at my notes that have an Alaskan team joining one from St. Pierre and Miquelon in the Canadian Premier League…)

But, those local fans who already support a team, like that team. Even if their club is not in MLS, they want their club to stick around. Whether one became a San Diego Loyal fan last week, last year, or the day the team was announced doesn’t matter. That was the club for them. Now they are gone. Are they supposed to just jump ship and follow the future MLS franchise? Maybe. I suspect some people will. I also suspect that a good number of them will not. It’s possible a good number of them will boycott whatever outfit lines up at the new Snapdragon Stadium in 2025. 

So what, MLS says? They’ve played at a stadium that seats 6,000. If they sold out every ticket every year they could, and all of those fans decide to ignore MLS, you’re looking at a little over 6,000 people who won’t come to your games. San Diego has a population of more than 1,000,000 people. A large number of those will be young people who disproportionately like soccer, or the sons and daughters of immigrant populations, who frequently come from soccer-loving countries. How big a loss will that be?

If that is indeed the calculation, it’s a cold one. It’s also a bold one, with a good chance of success. When you have new stacks worth hundreds of millions of dollars, you can easily come out on top in any fight. They are trying to find ownership groups willing and able to start, fund, and operate a soccer club in their reserve league, the beautifully-type-faced MLS Next Pro, every single day. I don’t think they plan to stop simply because another professional club already exists. Based on their behavior in southern California, no one should. 

As a fan of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, if MLS decides to find a local partner that, by hook and by crook, drives my club out of town, that won’t be forgiven. I can’t imagine many of the other 5,000+ fans of my ilk will be fine with that, either. This is not how you grow the game in a country where it has, improperly, lagged behind many other sports for decades. There is the potential for fans to become disillusioned, to fall out of love with their local option. Hopefully they aren’t alienated from the sport entirely. 

In the end, I suppose this is more of a questioning piece than it even is speculative. I don’t want MLS to do this thing it sure seems like they’re doing. Perhaps it’s even possible these are just isolated incidents. Perhaps. I still feel sorry for all those Loyal fans in San Diego and hope for nothing but the best for supporters of Orange County. Maybe, even if they want to subsume all soccer in America under the Major League umbrella, they could at least try to incorporate, rather than smash those clubs who initially won’t play with their ball. 

To head back to northwest England for a second, while Manchester City and Manchester United do play in the Premier League, and soak up all the glitz and glamor that comes with that (or glitz and glamour), the huge stable of clubs around them are what make the Premier League so great. The levels that have to be overcome to achieve status in the EPL as a player or a club are massive. They should not, therefore, take their Rotherhams and Boltons for granted. Those fans wouldn’t simply decide to be Red or Light Blue if their own team fell apart after all. With a game as good as football is, a rising tide should lift all boats. If business dictates some boats be sunk for the good of the yacht owners, it’ll be the death of us all in the end. 

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