There aren’t many notable traditions in Major League Soccer yet.
So many things are frequently changing in the league, which is currently in its 20th season, that not much can be counted on year after year.
However, one of the smaller things that is newsworthy each season is commissioner Don Garber’s on-air halftime interview during the MLS All-Star Game. For hardcore fans of the league it’s must-see TV and in some years might even be more interesting than the game itself.
Expansion, one of the seemingly evergreen hot topics in the league, always seems to come up and Garber usually has some good details to offer. During halftime of yesterday’s All-Star Game in San Jose, Garber teased more than he informed when asked about expansion, but there was still some useful information.
Atlanta is all set and ready to go for 2017 and Garber said they have 31,000 season-ticket deposits. Garber said a second team, which is all but assured to be Minnesota, will also join in 2017 with a formal announcement in “a couple weeks.” Los Angeles FC and David Beckham’s Miami team, which appears to be in limbo at the moment, are next in line.
After that, it’s anyone’s guess beyond the fact that Garber has previously said the league is working to add an additional four teams to reach 28. At this point even Garber doesn’t know which cities will get those teams, but he said there’s a lot of interest.
“I can’t tell you when that’s going to be,” Garber said during the interview on ESPN. “We’re going to be careful to ensure we manage the technical aspects of expansion, but a lot of interest. Probably a dozen cities for those last four spots.”
A dozen cities seems high and perhaps Garber is posturing to increase the competition for those expansion openings, but there are plenty of cities that on the surface would appear to be good for MLS.
From a local perspective, or more appropriately, a regional perspective, it makes one wonder how many of those cities are in the Midwest and could become geographical rivals for the Chicago Fire.
The region as a whole doesn’t have many teams in MLS. Chicago is joined by Kansas City and Columbus, with Minneapolis-St. Paul soon to join. The problem is Kansas City and Minneapolis, and to some extent Columbus, are the geographical edges of the region. There are plenty of Midwestern cities that are both closer and have more ties with Chicago in other sports that don’t have MLS teams.
Looking at the candidates
St. Louis: This is an obvious pick in the rivalry category for the Fire and jumped up the MLS list once the Rams left. The city has rich soccer history, a fairly successful minor league team (the Fire's United Soccer League affiliate, Saint Louis FC, is averaging nearly 5,000 fans per game to put it towards the top of the league attendance chart) and just two other sports teams to compete for mindshare and media attention.
Detroit: There hadn’t been much talk about Detroit joining MLS until Tom Gores (Pistons owner) and Dan Gilbert (Cleveland Cavaliers owner) announced they are working on getting a team into Detroit. Detroit City FC is a semi-pro that team that has built a dedicated following. There’s preexisting Chicago-Detroit rivalries in every other sport with Bulls-Pistons and Blackhawks-Red Wings the standouts.
Cincinnati: A year ago Cincinnati would have been an afterthought, but since FC Cincinnati has joined the USL things have changed. The expansion club is averaging a league-best 16,750 fans per game and recently drew just over 35,000 for a friendly against Premier League club Crystal Palace. There’s nothing minor league about those numbers.
Indianapolis: Indy Eleven, which the Fire beat in penalty kicks in this year’s U.S. Open Cup, led the North American Soccer League in attendance in 2014 and 2015 and sit only behind Minnesota this season. The fan interest and the numbers are there for a minor league team, but the question is if the investment is also there to move into MLS.
How this affects the Fire
MLS continues to market rivalries via sponsored “rivalry weeks” and the same few matchups seem to headline. Seattle-Portland, the new New York derby, LA-San Jose and to a lesser extent Dallas-Houston. The Fire don’t have anything that approaches these games.
The Columbus Crew are probably the Fire’s biggest rival and that’s not reaching the top tier of big matchups in the league. St. Louis, Detroit or Indianapolis could provide a marquee game on the schedule.
“The growth of the league is phenomenal,” Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez said back in May when asked about Midwest expansion. “We will be excited to go into those markets because we know we’ll be met with fans who will be inclined to hate Chicago because Chicago is a great sports town. Because we carry with us the tradition of six trophies in our cabinet and we also carry with us the reputation of Chicago sports in general. I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s a wonderful thing.”
From the players’ perspective, they won’t complain about their being more jobs in the league, but they also look forward to the bigger spectacles.
“Any rivalry game brings a lot of fan interest, a lot of high-intensity games,” said Fire midfielder Michael Stephens, who grew up in the Chicago area. “You see New York City-New York Red Bull this weekend was a good one so they’re always good.
“There’s been some talk about St. Louis as well so that could be a little rivalry. We got the Cardinals and Cubs going on already so that could be nice. Any more teams is good for the players.”
Like Stephens, Eric Gehrig is a Chicago native and a big fan of Chicago sports. Gehrig also believes it would be good for both the Fire and the league to see more teams in the region.
“You think about the markets, maybe St. Louis,” Gehrig said. “A lot of ties there with Chicago and Detroit obviously. Michigan has got a healthy crop of young talent. I think as the years pass soccer is going to keep getting bigger and bigger and any time you can add more teams and more rivalries to the Midwest it will be good.”