Along with the profound loss of life and economic ruin caused by the global coronavirus pandemic, the ongoing heath crisis has now also done what nothing else managed to through most of the last two decades: slow Major League Soccer’s rapid expansion across the United States and Canada.
MLS announced Friday afternoon that the planned start dates for three of its next four new clubs — in Charlotte, Sacramento and St. Louis — would be pushed back by a year because of the impact of COVID-19.
Charlotte, which was awarded MLS’s 30th club last December, will now begin play in 2022 rather than next season. St. Louis and Sacramento will debut in 2023 instead of 2022. Austin FC, slated to kick off next year in Texas’ capital, will still kick off in 2021 as originally planned.
“We have always taken a thoughtful and strategic approach to our expansion planning,” said MLS Commissioner Don Garber, whose league has tripled in size since 2004. “It is important for each club to take the necessary time to launch their inaugural MLS seasons the way their fans and communities deserve. With the extra year to make up for what has been a challenging 2020, these teams will be well-positioned for their debuts and for long-term success.”
Expansion has been one MLS’s biggest successes through its first quarter-century on the North American professional sports scene. The then-10 team circuit nearly folded in the early 2000s, but wildly popular new clubs in cities as diverse as Atlanta, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Orlando, Portland, Seattle and Toronto changed the league’s trajectory.
Atlanta United won MLS Cup in just its second season and played in front of more than 50,000 fans per game in 2019. Charlotte owner David Tepper dropped a $325 million expansion fee to join MLS last year, 62.5 percent more than Sacramento or St. Louis pair for their clubs just months earlier.
MLS grew to 26 teams this season with the addition of Inter Miami and Nashville SC. The addition of Austin will make it a 27-club league in 2021.