When Atlanta United takes to the pitch in 2023, Major League Soccer will look much different than it did this past season. Larger, to be precise. Come 2023, MLS will be at 30 clubs with the addition of teams in Austin, Charlotte, Sacramento and St. Louis.
That structure would favor each league with three divisions of five teams. Is this a good idea, and would fans favor such a format that is atypical in the wider soccer world?
For starters, the other major leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL) all have 30 or more teams, and incorporate divisions as part of the league structure. Reason being, divisions have a small geographic footprint to ensure travel logistics are reigned in, and it creates more equitable scheduling within these smaller groups of teams..
But why would MLS consider divisions when such a thing hardly exists in other soccer leagues around the world? Simply, no other league has to deal with the sheer amount of teams and geographical coverage. As MLS grows next season to 27 teams with the introduction of Austin FC, the league’s schedule is already imbalanced, unlike most leagues around the world that play each of their opponents home and away.
Moving toward divisions could significantly benefit the league, such as limiting travel costs and increasing regional rivalries. MLS for years has driven regional matchups such as Atlanta United vs. Orlando, LAFC vs. LA Galaxy, and FC Cincinnati and the Columbus Crew.
However, the only regional rivalry with any league traction is the ‘Cascadia Cup’ between the Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders, and Vancouver Whitecaps. When the league expands to 30-clubs, MLS could use the MLB model for divisions.
In such a scenario, MLS would still be split by east and west, but each league would have three divisions of five clubs in 2023. A theoretical southeast division would consist of Atlanta, Charlotte, Miami, Orlando, and Nashville. In this model, travel costs are limited, and each match would have their derby feel.
Also, divisions would empower the sport in different regions of the country. A southeast division could have a similar regional excitement akin to the NFC South division in the NFL. To their credit, Charlotte is already excited for the “I-85 rivalry,” and hopefully, it’ll be more of a rivalry match than with Orlando.
Imagine a ‘Cascadia Cup’ of the southeast where fans from other parts of the southeast can easily travel to games. The first game against Nashville SC gave some glimpse of what expect as Atlanta fans traveled well to the game.
Adopting divisions increase regional rivalries and, in doing so, also increase the excitement around the import. Imagine a wild Mercedes-Benz as Atlanta attempts to win a divisional matchup against a regional foe.
The matches will also be well-traveled by fans as the distance between most of the southeastern teams is a few hours via car. Similar to how Panthers and Saints fans travel to Atlanta for games and vice versa.
Especially with the financial consequences due to COVID-19, it would be wise for clubs to reduce travel costs. Major League Soccer confirmed a $1B loss due to the virus, and travel costs could put more clubs into the red.
However, one of the cons to divisions would be that it could take away from derby games’ significance. The Cascadia Cup, which currently incorporates three clubs, might lose significance if it’s crammed into divisional games.
With that being said, adding divisions has definite benefits for Atlanta United and the league. What do guys think?