The story of Major League Soccer in recent seasons is one of expansion and growth. Since the beginning of the 2017 campaign, eight teams have been introduced, including a Charlotte FC franchise that kicks off its inaugural campaign against DC United on Saturday (6 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+).
Given the whims of ownership and MLS’ raft of roster rules, there’s no « right » way to come into MLS. There are, however, some do’s and don’ts. An expansion club that follows these eight strategies will be hoisting an MLS Cup in no time, we guarantee it.*
* We do not actually guarantee it. But the fans will be happy, and that’s what matters.
Do: Hire the former coach of Barcelona
Atlanta United burst onto the scene in 2017, spending big money for Designated Players like Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron. The club averaged more than 48,000 fans per game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and with that raucous support, as they became only the third expansion franchise to make the playoffs in their inaugural season.
Tying everything together was Gerardo « Tata » Martino, the Argentine manager who previously headed up the Blaugrana as well as his native national team and Paraguay, too. Martino knit together a squad featuring MLS stalwarts including Michael Parkhurst and Jeff Larentowicz, rookies like Julian Gressel, and the South America cohort (Martinez, Almiron, Hector Villalba, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, and more) into a high-flying tapestry. In his last match, Atlanta won the 2018 MLS Cup.
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Martino walked away to manage Mexico. The ATL has yet to regain its form.
Don’t: Scour Scandinavia for your first-ever roster
Vadim Demidov joined from Brann in Norway. Bashkim Kadrii arrived from FC Copenhagen. Finn Rasmus Schuller wandered to the land of 10,000 lakes from BK Hacken in Sweden. Josh Gatt cast in from Molde. None of them found much success with Minnesota United as they struggled to a 19th-place finish in the league, besting only DC United on goal differential, in 2017.
While it’s possible for a franchise to focus its recruiting efforts in one geographic region and achieve results (see: Atlanta’s Paraguayan connection), the Loons proved that Scandinavia is not the move.
Do: Have your new, soccer-specific stadium ready for Year 1
A team’s first season is as much about winning on the field as it is is about winning hearts and minds off it. To that end, having a place to play that’s truly a team’s own, a permanent solution it can build from, is of paramount importance.
LAFC’s resplendent Banc of California Stadium fits the bill. The club packed a sellout 22,000 fans per game into the venue, including very fun, very boisterous 3252 supporters union. The season ended on a sour note with a shocking 3-2 home loss in the first game of the playoffs, but BoC was here to stay.
Don’t: Skimp on goalkeeping
There’s nothing inherently wrong with taking a fiscally conservative approach to building an expansion roster. Not every team comes into MLS backed by the cash of an Atlanta or a Miami. And, as a club like Nashville SC has shown, it’s possible to succeed without big-name, big-money DPs in year one. But someone has to keep the ball out of the net. FC Cincinnati overlooked that edict.
In 2019, the club finished dead last in post-shot expected goals minus goals allowed (PSxG +/-), according to FBREF.com. Individually, Przemyslaw Tyton and Spencer Richey were two of the six worst netminders in the league. While the next year was a bit better (third from the bottom), 2021 reverted to form as the team’s -0.43 PSxG +/- was twice as bad as the next closest team with Tyton and new signing Kenneth Vermeer finishing 29th and 30th out of 30 eligible goalkeepers.
That’s one way to end up with just 60 points across three seasons and a shocking -106 goal differential.
Do: Be yourself, stick to your plan
When Inter Miami CF joined MLS in 2020, it went in big. (Too big, actually; see below.) Nashville took another route, signing quality but not flashy DPs Randall Leal and Hany Mukhtar, while using the massive amounts of General Allocation Money given to expansion clubs to pull future MLS Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman from LAFC.
English manager Gary Smith built a robust side that didn’t create many chances — scoring just 24 goals in 23 regular season games — but didn’t leak goals either, as Nashville conceded only 22. The result? A club that exceeded expectations, lost just three times in the final 17 regular season games, won two playoff matches and took eventual MLS Cup champions Columbus Crew into extra-time before falling in the conference semifinals. In 2021, they did more of the same, tying an astonishing 18 matches, finishing third in the Eastern Conference and reaching the semifinals again.
Rarely pretty, always effective.
Don’t: Cheat the system
MLS rules are complex: from DPs, GAM and TAM to Allocation Order and Young Player Initiatives, there are all sorts of things that make it hard for even the most diehard fan to keep everything straight. A little wiggle room as general managers and technical staffs get up to speed is warranted, but just straight up being untruthful about salaries is obviously not allowed.
That’s exactly what Inter Miami did with when reporting the salaries of Gonzalez Pirez, Blaise Matuidi, Andres Reyes, Nicolas Figal and Julian Carranza. When Miami got busted, MLS fined the club a record $2 million, while also reducing the amount of allocation dollars the team will receive in 2022 and 2023.
The Designated Player rule was initially conceived as a mechanism to get David Beckham into MLS. That’s one rule you would think Miami — co-owned by one David Beckham — shouldn’t break.
Do: Bring the star power in the right way
Two words: Matthew McConaughey. Yeah, Mr. Cool himself can be kind of annoying, but also, he got that crowd hyped.
Matthew McConaughey helps energize the crowd as he bangs bongo drums on the field during Austin FC’s first-ever home game.
Austin FC didn’t have a lot to celebrate in a ho-hum inaugural season, but it will always have those McConaughey memories at Q2 Stadium. The venue holds 20,500 fans; in 20 years, 200,000 Texans will claim they were at the opener. All right, all right, all right.
Don’t: Wait until the last minute to finalize your roster
« Right now, we’re screwed, » is not the sentiment one hopes to hear from one’s head coach two weeks before the start of the season. Yet that’s exactly what Charlotte FC manager Miguel Angel Ramirez offered when asked about the state of his team’s roster after a $6m deal to bring Granada winger Darwin Machis on a DP contract collapsed at the last minute.
Charlotte also missed out on securing the services of United States international Paul Arriola, who ended up with FC Dallas, and saw Poland winger Kamil Jozwiak of Derby County get hurt after verbally agreeing to terms.
Building a roster from scratch is hard, but it’s made harder if players are transferred out before the team ever plays a match — as was the case with Riley McGree joining Middlesbrough last month — but it should be possible to know who’s going to be on the field opening day well before kickoff.