Less than three years ago, the news was almost completely bad for Major League Soccer.
The league folded two troubled franchises in Florida, admitted to more than $250million in fiscal losses, had little meaningful TV presence and still relied heavily on the benevolence of Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz.
Fast forward to 2004. While still not profitable, MLS has cut its annual losses considerably, and the Los Angeles Galaxy now operates in the black. Three new investors have joined the ranks of team operators.
Attendance is up for the third time in four seasons. D.C. United's Freddy Adu, though still often struggling on the field, has helped make MLS fodder for water cooler conversation.
New stadiums are in development in suburban New York, Denver, Chicago and Dallas. Today's MLS All-Star Game at RFK Stadium, despite a last-minute format and location change from New England, will come close to selling out the facility's lower bowl.
Now comes arguably the boldest stroke yet. MLS next week will put the finishing touches on its expansion plan for 2005, announcing a second franchise in Los Angeles to play at Home Depot Center. The new club, run by Mexican businessman and Chivas team owner Jorge Vergara, will join a recently announced franchise in Salt Lake City to become MLS' 11th and 12th teams. Two more teams will arrive in 2006 or 2007.
The moves, in the works since those darker days of 2001 and early 2002, obviously speak to MLS' confidence in itself. They also arrive with plenty of questions.
Can the 9-year-old league support the inevitable dilution of its talent base, particularly as it continues to lose talented young players like D.C. United's Bobby Convey and Chicago's DeMarcus Beasley to the riches of European teams?
Will the expanded franchise footprint do anything to quell instability in current markets like San Jose and Kansas City?
Will the league be able to generate sufficient revenues to raise the salary cap beyond $1.7million a team, where it has been stuck for years?
While answers to those queries will be known only over time, MLS commissioner Don Garber remains as bullish as ever about the league's future.
"There were definitely a lot of questions [in prior years] about the viability of our league, about our future. I don't have to answer those questions anymore," Garber said yesterday. "We have investors buying into the league at $10million a franchise, and a list of cities around the country still waiting to get in. People believe in our [economic] model, and considering where we were that's something we're very proud of."
MLS is no stranger to crossroads moments. In fact, those moments have been a near-constant between the contraction, a federal lawsuit with its players over MLS' single-entity structure, an uneasy working relationship with the Women's United Soccer Association (which ceased operation last fall) and until recently, the league's inability to attract new investors.
What makes this particular juncture different is that MLS is truly playing offense with its future rather than assuming a reactive position. To buttress the forthcoming expansion, Garber said both a first-ever collective bargaining agreement with MLS players and the creation of reserve teams for each club are in the works and could be announced soon.
Ideally, the measures will create a large and much more standardized pipeline of young talent. But the forthcoming quality of MLS play -- still often spotty to many observers, particularly by European standards -- remains in question.
"Many other leagues have expanded too quickly and seen their product suffer," Garber said. "We're being very careful and mapping this all out. As a young league, we have the advantage of being able to learn from others' mistakes."
Other mechanics of the additional teams, such as divisional lineups and expansion drafts, have yet to be made final. The divisional structure is particularly tricky. The addition of the Vergara team in Los Angeles and Salt Lake City will place seven of MLS' 12 teams west of the Mississippi River. Seattle is probably at the top of the list for the second wave of expansion, further tilting the geographic balance.
"Two new teams, 50 new jobs coming in next year? Heck, maybe I'll make a comeback," said Marcelo Balboa, the longtime U.S. national team stalwart and MLS veteran who retired early last year.