MLS players weigh in on expansion, pro/rel, Beckham and playoff structure
MLS players are split on whether the league should expand past 24 clubs -- though many think the target of 28 teams is too low -- as well as instituting promotion and relegation, a survey conducted by ESPN FC shows.
On the condition of anonymity, ESPN FC asked 140 current MLS players from 21 teams (New York City FC declined to participate) what they believed was the ideal number of teams.
At 25 percent, the most widely selected answer was 24 clubs, with another 27 percent choosing fewer, 44 percent choosing more and 4 percent declining to answer.
"I think there are certain markets that aren't up to par, and I think 20 is the ideal number for a single-table format, which I think would work best," one Eastern Conference player said.
The addition of Atlanta United and Minnesota United this season puts 22 teams in MLS, and LAFC and David Beckham's plans for a Miami club will bring the number to 24.
In January, MLS received bids from 12 different markets hoping to be among two more teams that will join the league by 2020, with another two to follow after that, for a total of 28.
While 19 percent of players thought 28 teams was an appropriate number, 21 percent thought that the league could afford to move to 30 or more in the years to come.
"It's kind of unlimited," one Western Conference player said. "The U.S. is a special country. You have 50 states. There are a lot of people trying to get a professional soccer club at the highest level. 32 maybe? We have the capacity to have a couple divisions of top quality soccer in the United States."
One midfielder went even further, saying: "I'd like to see 70 top-class teams. Why not? Every state should have a team, and the big cities should have two. There are 72 pro teams in England, and it's tiny. This is a huge country. Look at all the markets that are popping up. Business people wouldn't invest if there wasn't a demand. This sport is growing like crazy."
Promotion and relegation
As the league expands, 54 percent of MLS players say they would be in favor of instituting promotion and relegation, with just 40 percent against and 6 percent declining to answer.
"I think it just adds to the competitive nature," a Western Conference player said. "Teams on the bottom have no incentive to get better. It will spark owners to get more interested in their clubs, or get new owners who have a passion for the game."
"I don't think there are enough strong teams to do that and if I put myself in the owners' shoes I would not want to add that sort of risk to my investment," another Western Conference player said. "Maybe down the line in 10 or 20 years, but not yet."
Beckham's Miami plans
With so many cities competing for so few spots, players were also split on whether Beckham's quest to start a Miami club will ever come to fruition.
Beckham and his partners first announced their plans in 2014, but after a number of failed efforts to find a stadium site, only 48 percent of MLS players asked said they believe the club will ever play, while 45 percent said it would not and 7 percent declined to answer.
"There are too many hurdles. It's just not a good sports town," an Eastern Conference player said. "I don't think it was smart from the beginning and I think there are a lot of other cities that are more deserving, more prepared and would do better for the league."
A number of players noted the difficulties the NBA's Miami Heat had selling out games even when LeBron James was on the team, though one midfielder thought the new club's star power would make a difference, saying "If anyone can get it done, it's Beckham."
Schedule and playoff length
The current playoffs format features 12 teams and last year's postseason lasted from Oct. 26 to Dec. 10 with an international break built in.
A majority of players -- 68 percent -- believed those six and a half weeks were too long for a team to maintain momentum, but an overwhelming 84 percent still viewed winning the MLS Cup as more important than the Supporters' Shield for the top regular-season record.
"No one remembers the Supporters' Shield winners," one player said.
But players aren't aiming to reduce the length of the season at the expense of their national teams, with 82 percent against the league continuing its policy of playing through international breaks.
MLS will take a two-week July break this year during the CONCACAF Gold Cup but a limited number of games will still be played on dedicated FIFA dates throughout 2017.
While many players noted it wasn't fair to clubs to play without their top players, one defender said it helped to level the playing field.
"It adds some flavor to the league," he said. "For younger guys who are looking to make it, it's a good opportunity. And I think it shows who the best teams are, who has the best depth."
ESPN FC's Jeff Carlisle and Doug McIntyre contributed to this report.