In 1996, Major League Soccer began with only ten clubs. Since then the league has grown to 20 teams and counting. Let’s take a look at the league’s expansion teams and how they fared in their first few years.
1998 - Chicago Fire
The Fire was one of the first expansion teams in the league, and one of only two, to win the MLS Cup in its inaugural year. In spectacular fashion, they also went on to win the U.S. Open that same year. In 1999, Chicago made it to the MLS Cup semifinals and in 2000, they made it to the finals once again. This time they couldn’t secure a 2nd Cup title in three years, losing the championship game, and also losing a tiebreaker for the Supporters Shield to the Kansas City Wizards.
1998 - Miami Fusion
In their first year, Miami was able to sneak into the last spot for the Eastern Conference Playoffs and then exiting quickly, losing in their first round match. Their second year they fared about the same, earning 4th place in the Eastern Conference and losing their playoff game to the eventual 1999 MLS Cup Champions, D.C. United. They later left the league in 2001 due to club financial issues.
2005 - Real Salt Lake
In 2005, RSL was unable to clinch a spot in the Western Conference Playoffs. They finished out the season with losing record of 5-22-5. 2006 and 2007 proved to be even worse getting last place in their conference both years.
2005 - Chivas USA
Chivas’s inaugural year left them with a disappointing record of 4 wins, 22 losses, and 6 ties. The next year, the team was able to able to make the 2006 Western Conference semis losing out to Houston in the second leg on aggregate. They too, like Miami, ceased operations in 2014 and left the league due to financial woes.
2006 - Houston Dynamo
Houston is a different case as they moved from San Jose when the original Earthquakes could not get a stadium deal done. Coming off a Supporters’ Shield season in 2005 in San Jose, the Dynamo’s inaugural year in Houston resulted in a winning record and MLS Cup title after defeating the New England Revolution on penalty kicks.
They continued to show out in their second year becoming the 2007 MLS Cup champs for the second year running, and the second team in MLS to do so. In 2008, Houston made it to the semifinals proving to be one of the most successful expansion teams in their first three years.
2007 - Toronto FC
As Canada’s first MLS side, the club’s first year was filled with great attendance and ticket sales, but an unfortunate losing record of 6-17-7. Year 2 was slightly better with a record of 9-13-8, but unsuccessful as they were unable to make the playoffs a second year in a row.
2008 - San Jose Earthquakes
The Earthquakes returned to the league as an expansion team under new ownership. They played at Buck Shaw Stadium while the plans came together for the eventual Avaya Stadium. Long time manager Frank Yallop returned to the Quakes, with long time Bay Area legend John Doyle as the club’s general manager. The team went 8-13-9 in their first year back in the league and they reached the playoffs in 2010.
2009 - Seattle Sounders
The Sounders came out strong in their inaugural year as the first expansion team to win its first three matches without allowing a goal. Known as one of the most successful club launches, the team finished out year one with a winning record and a U.S. Open Cup Championship trophy. For the first time, Seattle was able to earn a spot in the playoffs in 2010 but lost to the Galaxy in the first round.
2010 - Philadelphia Union
The Union struggled in their first season finishing six spots out of playoff contention. They improved tremendously in 2011, finishing 8th in the league overall and reaching the MLS Cup semifinals. They returned to a losing streak in their third year after going through a head coach change mid-season.
2011 - Vancouver Whitecaps
Injury was the greatest detriment to Vancouver in their first MLS season, ultimately getting last place in the league. In 2012, they were able to squeak into the playoffs but came in 3 points shy in 2013. In their second year they won one of their last ten games, and although managed their first playoff run in league history, lost to the LA Galaxy in the knockout round.
2011 - Portland Timbers
The Timbers were unable to earn a spot in the playoffs for the first two years of their MLS campaign. They managed to turn it around in 2013 with a tight race for the Supporter’s Shield and finishing in first place in the Western Conference. In the end,they lost to 5-2 to RSL in the semifinals cup game.
2012 - Montreal Impact
While the Impact did not earn a playoff spot in their inaugural run, they were awfully close, winning five games in a row near the end of the season. They finally secured a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs in 2013 with a short post-season, losing to Houston in the knock-out round.
2015 - Orlando City SC
Last year, OCSC finished in 7th in their conference, one spot and 5 points shy of the red line. Currently in 2016, they remain teetering the playoff line and leading the league in ties.
2015 - New York City FC
NYCFC also failed to make a playoff run last season finishing with a losing record and ultimately firing their head coach, Jason Kreis. So far things have turned around this year as they are in 3rd place and have a good chance securing a spot in the 2016 playoffs.
Only three out of the twelve expansion teams listed above secured a playoff spot in their inaugural year and it hasn’t happened since the Sounders in 2009. Only one expansion team has ever won the MLS Cup in their first season, and that hasn’t happened since 1998. While history paints a bleak picture for the playoff hopes of expansion clubs, there have been success stories like Chicago and Seattle that provide hope.