Then, by the end of this year, the owners will award franchises to two additional cities from a list that includes not just Nashville, Cincinnati and Sacramento but also Raleigh, Charlotte, Tampa, Detroit, Indianapolis, St. Louis, San Antonio, Phoenix and San Diego. And next year, the owners will pick two more from the group that remains.
Critics of M.L.S. contend that the league’s chase for new markets — and ever-rising expansion fees, now at $150 million per club — have diluted the quality of the product on the field, since every time a team is added to the league, another expansion draft of existing players must be held. And even as M.L.S. boasts of record attendance, its television ratings regularly lag behind those of games streamed in from Mexico and Europe.
“They do enough to get the stadium full, but can they transcend that?” asked Steve Gans, who advises teams and is generally bullish on the future of M.L.S. “When fans watch two Premier league games in the morning, will they also watch an M.L.S. game in the afternoon?”
The league’s growing roster of teams has also cost lower-division leagues like the second-tier North American Soccer League and United Soccer League some of their best franchises. Several of them have jumped to M.L.S. at the first opportunity, and left those that remain locked out of any route into the top tier because of M.L.S.’s closed ownership structure.
The league’s expansion drive has hit other potholes. A bid for a team in St. Louis, which lost the N.F.L.’s Rams last year, faltered after voters rejected a proposal to provide public funds for a new stadium. An investment group in Charlotte and another in San Diego, which includes the former player Landon Donovan, have hit similar roadblocks.
Still, more than enough viable bids remain, particularly in Cincinnati and Sacramento, where well-heeled bidders own two of the most successful teams in the U.S.L. and have well-formed plans for new stadiums. Investors in Detroit are also hoping to build a new soccer stadium downtown, and this week Nashville’s bid added the owners of the N.F.L.’s Minnesota Vikings to their investment group.
“We felt like there was a pent-up demand for soccer,” said Carl Lindner III, the lead investor in the bid built around his successful U.S.L. club, F.C. Cincinnati, which regularly draws more than 20,000 fans a game. “I’m very excited by the upward trajectory of soccer in the U.S., in the M.L.S. and also the U.S.L.”
Garber is the first to admit that he did not predict the league’s upswing. For years, M.L.S. was an afterthought on the sports landscape. Its teams played before undersized crowds in oversize football stadiums, and television ratings were often microscopic.
The league tried focusing its marketing to Hispanic fans and then to soccer moms and their children, often with limited success. Fans of European or South American leagues routinely deride the league as an inferior product.
But M.L.S. finally found its footing about a decade ago, in an earlier round of expansion that added cities like Toronto, Seattle and Portland, Ore. The league began to make smarter signings, and a wave of construction of smaller, soccer-only stadiums filled with diverse, young crowds. Suddenly, the league had a hipper, urban sheen.
Attendance and television ratings, still small, perked up. And as they rose, so did expansion fees. When Toronto entered the league in 2007, its investors did so after paying an expansion fee of $10 million. The two franchises that will be selected this year must fork over $150 million. In another sign of confidence, Adidas last week agreed to pay $700 million over the next six years to be the exclusive merchandise rights sponsor for M.L.S., a nearly fivefold increase over the value of its existing deal.
“Eight, 10 years ago, the discussion was whether the league was going to survive,” said Jonathan Kraft, a co-owner of the New England Revolution and the chairman of the league’s expansion committee. “Now, it’s how high is the ceiling? I think we’re only getting started.”
Yet as its roster of teams expands, M.L.S. must wrestle with a question that never goes away: whether to adopt the promotion and relegation model in use by nearly every other national league system in the world. Supporters of the so-called pro/rel model argue that it rewards investment and punishes failure on the field.
But Garber has repeatedly rejected the idea, mostly because it would discourage owners and cities from investing in stadiums and player development if there were a risk they would be demoted to a lower division.
The issue continues to bubble, however. In July, the media company MP & Silva offered to pay M.L.S. $4 billion for its worldwide media rights, beginning in 2023, on the condition that the league adopt a promotion and relegation system with the country’s lower divisions. M.L.S. said its current rights deals forbade it to even consider the offer, and it was lost on no one involved that MP & Silva’s owner, Riccardo Silva, stood to benefit directly from a potential promotion-relegation system since he owns a team in the second-tier N.A.S.L.
So last week, Silva signed on to a complaint with the Court of Arbitration for Sport seeking to require that FIFA impose such a structure in the United States.
Still, that investors — including Silva — are trying to join M.L.S. one way or another suggests they believe top-level American soccer still has room to grow. That is certainly true in Nashville, where business leaders, sports executives and politicians shepherded Garber and Abbott around town in July as if they were visiting heads of state.
There were no marching bands or festivals with massive crowds of soccer fans. But at meeting after meeting, including one with Tennessee’s Republican governor, Bill Haslam, Garber and Abbott were told about Nashville’s concentration of Fortune 500 companies, its low unemployment rate, its diverse and increasingly young residents, and its global reputation as a music and entertainment capital.
“It’s a great moment for soccer in this country when you’ve got 12 cities vying for a handful of spots,” said John Ingram, who owns Nashville’s U.S.L. club and is leading the campaign for an M.L.S. team.
In a twist, the presidents of the N.F.L.’s Tennessee Titans and the N.H.L.’s Nashville Predators even turned up to pitch to Garber on why having a soccer team would be good for the city. It was a sign, perhaps, that M.L.S. has elbowed its way onto a bigger sports stage.
“Having another competitor for sports dollars will make us work harder,” said Steve Underwood, the president of the Titans. “It makes you do your job.”