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Boom and bust of American soccer expansion leaves collateral damage

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Sure, it’s just the way business works, but it’s at the expense of fans expected to take a large role.

MLS: U.S. Open Cup-Austin Aztex at Houston Dynamo
Aztex: One of several teams with an uncertain future.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The American soccer scene is going through a real boom cycle as far as expansion.

Since the modern era, which we’ll call the 1990s to the present, literally hundreds of teams have been created, in the United States and Canada, alongside entire leagues, men’s, women’s, professional and amateur.

Even though this era spans more than 25 years at this point, the past few years have shown expansion fever is as big as it’s ever been.

With the viability of leagues like MLS, more and more interested parties are jumping on the bandwagon, establishing teams in (nearly) all corners, coast to coast, and nearly every week, there’s speculation of a new team joining in this or that league, speculation that is not idle speech of a corner of social media, but proclamations to local press and well-sourced reports that more often than not turn out to be true.

In the past 10 years, nine new MLS teams have entered the league, with three and a half (Miami being the half team at this stage) slated to enter the next two years. The latest iteration of the NASL was created in the last decade, along with nine existing teams and one team currently on tap to join the league next year.

USL has seen massive growth in just a few short years, going from 13 teams in 2013 to 29 teams this season, and the overwhelming majority of teams currently in the league coming into existence in the last decade.

Even on the women’s side, there’s been a boom. The NWSL has made it to a once-mythical fourth season of existence in women’s pro soccer, and in addition to bringing a handful of established teams into the league, has slowly incorporated expansion teams over the years.

It’s truly a remarkable time to be a soccer fan in this country, and more than ever, if you do not have a local team, or even a local team on the level you desire, you have hope that one day soon, you will get what you want.

But all of this ignores one crucial fact — on some level, this expansion boom is a bubble.

In any business venture, there are bound to be successes and failures. It’s rare that an entire industry goes belly-up at once — rather, those that aren’t viable don’t survive. Given the world we live in, that is seen as entirely just and rational.

But amidst the dozens of teams that have been formed on a professional level in the past five years alone, and the scores of amateur teams popping up nearly everywhere, is a trail littered with failed, provisionally failed, and about to fail soccer teams.

In the last decade, one MLS team (Chivas USA), three NASL teams (Atlanta Silverbacks, Puerto Rico Islanders and San Antonio Scorpions), and six USL teams (Antigua Barracuda, Charlotte Eagles, Dayton Dutch Lions, FC New York, Phoenix FC, VSI Tampa Bay FC) either folded altogether or moved into the amateur ranks. On the women’s side, the entire co-second tier W-League folded, along with many of that league’s teams.

And with the expansion boom, there’s the ominous reports of bust this week for a number of clubs. The Austin Aztex, which played in USL in 2015 but sat out this season, appears to still exist on paper, even though the team is rumored to remain on hiatus for 2017, possibly joined by the Wilmington Hammerheads. NASL expansion side Rayo OKC, one of the most unlikely soccer expansion ventures you’ll ever see, between one of the least-heralded La Liga sides (since relegated in Spain) and a market with few apparent ties to Spanish soccer on the surface, appears to be in absolute free fall based on reports out of Oklahoma City.

From a rational capitalist point of view, again, there are going to be business winners and losers in an expanding field, quite apart from actual wins and losses on the field. And perhaps the silver lining for those pro teams lost is that in six of the cases listed above, another professional team is now playing there or is slated to play there in the near future, meaning fans who lost one team will have the opportunity to still follow a local side.

But as someone who wrote extensively about losing a team, for hardcore fans, it’s tough to see the plug pulled, no matter how unstable or poorly run.

Soccer is making strides every day to be the next sport to join the pantheon of the "Big 4." Some argue it’s there already, others say it’s a world away. Perhaps time is the biggest dividing point, and that can’t be overcome without simply spending it, the old-fashioned way.

But a sign of maturity from a league is that teams aren’t at risk of folding. Even the first-tier men’s pro league saw a team so badly run, and with a new ownership group for the area so unwilling to touch the nuclear waste with a 100-foot pole that they torpedoed the club, and frankly, only a few miss it. MLS’ advantage is that with new fans coming aboard every year, the institutional memory of most fans is remarkably short, and so messes like Chivas USA, to say nothing of the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny, can be forgotten by most, or never even really known about, in no time.

At the same time, each and every fan who wants to take a rooting interest in a new soccer team must maintain a healthy level of skepticism when a new owner brings a team to town, promising to make a connection to the local community in exchange for a fully-stocked supporters section where fans are expected to do the literal work of creating atmosphere each and every game day that can be marketed by the club and league as a whole. Put simply, if a team is going to make promises of major league ambitions, signing players, winning championships, and in some cases, moving up to other leagues in the future, then there should be an expectation the whole enterprise won’t go bust in a few short years.

Of course, no owner buys a soccer team expecting it to fail. They are no doubt entirely genuine in their promises on day one, and any number of calamities conspire to sink those that can’t hack it over time.

But clearly there is a bubble element to soccer expansion here, and while I don’t see the entire thing collapsing, there are sure to be more teams to bite the dust in the next decade. In some cases, another team will come around. Regardless, following a team may break your heart. For most, it’s because the results aren’t there, and the team will carry on. For a certain proportion, however, it’s because of the growing pains of soccer in North America, and in the sweep of history, those left behind by teams due to impersonal economic forces will be the collateral damage.

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