It seems like every year there is a new team being brought into the Major League Soccer (MLS). Since 2017, this is true, with the expansion of Atlanta United and Minnesota FC, all the way until 2023, when a team out of St. Louis will play. Currently, there are 27 teams playing in the MLS with Austin FC being the last addition to the league. New and more it is the dream, right? Having more teams compete, watching more talent on the field this should be healthy. The question is, when is it too much?
When looking around the world of soccer, there are five countries that soccer fans adore: France, England, Spain, Germany and Italy. Those five countries have the best leagues around the globe. Not only do they have the big bucks to bring in any player they want, but their leagues are more competitive in general and produce world class soccer. On top of this, their season structure is far different than what we have with the MLS.
For starters, all five major leagues have 20 teams except for the Bundesliga (Germany), which has 18 teams. Having 20 teams is just the right amount. All the teams play each opponent twice, creating 38 games to be played. Everyone has the same strength of schedule, as everyone plays the same opponents both home and away. Even if you have a fluke one game against a team, you still get the opportunity to redeem yourself, and when a team beats an opponent twice, I think they prove they are the better team. After the 38 games, that wraps up the season, and whoever posts the best record wins the league.
The MLS is sitting with 27 teams and will have 29 teams by 2023. Due to the large number of teams, they split the league into an eastern conference and a western conference. This also affects teams’ schedules; teams in the western conference play more teams in the western conference, and the same goes for the eastern conference. This gives an uneven strength of schedule; if one conference is significantly worse than the other, it is unfair, but there’s not much they can do about it. After the 34 games are played, the top seven teams of each conference are brought into a tournament to crown the next champion of the MLS. A team could have a horrible first half of the season, squeeze into playoffs, then be crowned the champion. America loves the underdog tournament story over the consistently best.
A significant difference between the MLS and the leagues in Europe is the concept of relegation. At the end of each season in most European leagues, the best teams of the season get promoted to a stronger league, while the teams in last get demoted to a weaker league. This creates a flow and an influx of new teams to add spice to the league. Sometimes new teams get demoted right away, or you have a miracle story like Leicester City, who nearly got demoted then won the league the next year. That is the exciting story of soccer. Meanwhile, the MLS has the same teams each year, and they only add on when a team buys a spot rather than earns it.
All this goes to show, that maybe new and more is not what we need. The MLS does not have to be different; America does not need to stand out from Europe. The teams in Europe are far more successful than any American team, so maybe we need to be the ones to adjust and take notes. The MLS is by no means a bad league, but it can be hard to follow, and their structure is obscure compared to the rest of the world. Having too many teams is overwhelming, and that is where the MLS has hit. Maybe it is time for the MLS to add a relegation and a promotion and tighten up the leagues – because right now, it is confusing, overwhelming and hard for the average viewer to understand.