The MLS just announced a brand new expansion team in San Diego to debut in the year 2025 but the MLS is now reaching a point where expansion is becoming a big problem for a league that is not growing fast enough to sustain all of these changes. San Diego will be the 30th team coming into the MLS but there are still plenty of cities looking to win their bid for a team and it looks like San Diego will definitely not be the last expansion team to enter the MLS. The larger the league gets though, the bigger the issue becomes and these are just a few of the reasons why continuing to expand will not be good for producing a better product on the pitch.
One of the issues that will continue to grow in the MLS is the scheduling parity and equality of strength of schedule within the league. Most soccer leagues around the world are designed so every team has a very fair schedule that is not stronger or weaker than anyone else. This is usually done by having every team play each other twice, one home match and one away match for each, so that every team has the exact same schedule and this is achieved by ideally having a league with 20 teams or less.
The MLS has now blown past that mark though and it has seriously affected the strength of schedule for some of these teams as there are not enough matches in the season for everyone to play each other twice. Furthermore, they have tried to cut down on travel for some of these teams by having teams play more matches against teams more geographically close to them, but doing this has hurt weaker teams who constantly have to see a dominant team in the region more than they should have to.
Travel has become another big issue with the scheduling as North America is a very large continent from East to West with many different time zones that plays a part in the way matches are scheduled for certain teams, which again leads to an uneven strength of schedule.
Also, by having a 30 team league, it causes a cluster in the scheduling for the times of the matches as the league wants each match to start at the same time locally for each city and usually all on the same day as well, but this hurts the growth of the league when it comes to neutral followers wanting to just catch a game but now need 15 screens to watch every team and have no action to follow the next day as a majority of the games tend to be on one day.
Another issue that the MLS is now dealing with is the competitiveness of the league itself. Most leagues offer some kind of incentives to win matches and be dominant in the league with promotion and relegation but this is something that does not exist in the MLS and will lead to problems in competition if the league continues to expand.
In most soccer leagues around the world, there are good teams and there are bad teams but you never get to really know the bad teams too well as they drop down to lower leagues if they cannot keep up with the level of play of being in Division 1. The MLS lacks this incentive though and like most North American sports they actually incentivize losing by having a draft. By having no relegation to a lower league, the MLS is now dealing with the same systemic losing that certain franchises go through when owners are unwilling to spend money and invest in the team. This leads to a bad product on the pitch and less interest from supporting groups which then causes a franchise to be on the verge of collapse when this league should be moving the other way.
One of the great things about having relegation is the excitement it brings for the bad teams in the league as the final few matches become very important to staying in the league and cause teams to play better which leads to more exciting games. The MLS has the complete opposite though as bad teams tend to tank for draft picks making the last few matches of the season pretty much pointless for certain franchises.
The absence of relegation has also led to a disinterest in their lower leagues and the MLS has pretty much rendered the USL useless as a league as there will never be any room for teams to move up unless they pay a massive expansion fee which is not always possible for smaller markets that still get plenty of fan support.
Solution To The Problem
The MLS can continue to expand to have as many teams as they would like but the reality is that they will never be taken seriously as a soccer league on the world stage if they do not make some serious changes to the entire structure of the league. Star players will continue to come to the MLS in the later stages of their career only as a safety league knowing they can never be relegated on their team and their job will always be safe. The MLS really needs to be stripped down from top to bottom and rebuilt entirely as a league but there is still another way to fix this before it is too late.
The best solution to fix an expanding MLS would actually be to expand the league to 40 teams but split it up into 2 leagues of 20 teams and make them more East and West oriented to cut down on travel for a lot of these clubs. This would fix the scheduling issues leading to a schedule that is more fair for every team. This would also lead to a revitalized competitiveness for the Supporters Shield but also keep the North American style playoff format where the 2 leagues would only play each other for the MLS Cup.
Finally, promotion and relegation must be added or there are always going to be tanking teams for draft picks as well as very good teams in the USL that play at an MLS level but will never have any avenue into the league making the entire USL itself as a league pointless. Promotion and relegation is the one thing that North America may never buy into but it is simply needed to fix the issues and until it is implemented in the league, there will always be franchises of systemic losing with no way out of it.