MLS commissioner Don Garber targets 24-team league by 2020

When New York City and Orlando add Major League Soccer franchises in 2015, the league will have more than doubled in size since the 2004 season.

More expansion is on the way. This time, it’s headed south.

As part of his annual state-of-the-league address Tuesday, commissioner Don Garber laid out plans to expand the MLS to 24 teams by 2020. The additions of New York City FC and Orlando City SC, scheduled for 2015, will bring the league to 21 teams.

Miami and Atlanta appear to be on the commissioner’s wish list for the next wave of expansion, with each bringing potential big-name owners into Major League Soccer.

Garber said he been in talks with David Beckham to take the lead on a Miami ownership group that includes “American Idol” creator Simon Fuller, and with Falcons owner Arthur Blank about a potential team in Atlanta.

“We hope to have 24 teams by the end of the decade. In order to do that, we need to expand strategically,” Garber said. “We’ve got a big chunk of the county where we’re not covered. That’s the Southeast. We hope to be able to achieve that with Atlanta, with Orlando and Miami. But we have a lot of work to do in Atlanta and Miami.”

It wouldn’t be the first time the MLS tried to establish a fan base in the Southeast. The Tampa Bay Mutiny was one of the league’s charter franchises, and Miami Fusion F.C. was added in 1998.

In an effort to cut losses, however, the league contracted both teams in 2011.

If the league elects to add Atlanta and Miami the next few years, a spot would remain open for a 24th team.

Garber says the league probably would look in the Midwest to fill that vacancy. St. Louis, Minneapolis and San Antonio and Austin, Texas, remain possibilities.

Garber said locations that can offer soccer-specific stadiums downtown are likely to receive preference, though he mentioned Sporting Park as an example that stadiums located outside city centers can still work.

The lack of a facility is the final obstacle in talks with Miami, Garber said, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. The state recently rejected a request from the NFL’s Miami Dolphins to publicly fund renovations of Sun Life Stadium.

In 2012, baseball’s Miami Marlins opened a publicly funded stadium that cost more than $600 million. The Marlins finished worst in the National League in attendance in 2013.

“You think you’re at the end of the finish line, and then the finish line moves,” Garber said. “Generally that’s facility-related. In Miami, we can’t do anything until we finalize a stadium plan.”

Other news from Garber’s state-of-the-league address:

• Although the league continues to grow, Garber said: “Major League Soccer still loses money as an enterprise. We’ve got to find a way that we can get closer to a break-even enterprise.”

• A record 90 athletes who participated in MLS player-development academies played in the league this season. Garber said the leaguewide commitment to such academies totaled more than $20 million in 2013.

• While the league would like to move to a winter schedule, Garber said, “We don’t think we’re ready for that yet.”

• A total of 112 MLS games sold out this season, which ties the record set in 2012.


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