Major League Soccer expansion is in the news again, with David Beckham’s Miami franchise announcing this week that it finally will begin play in 2020 (no fooling this time!), a full four years after the team was first “officially” launched.
Miami’s franchise, and the re-launch of a second Los Angeles franchise this spring, are big news for the league. They’re also an attempt to reverse two of the worst expansion decisions in league history.
The Miami Fusion was one of the first two expansion teams in MLS history. Launched in the summer before the 1998 season, it was seen as a natural attempt to tap into the Latino culture of south Florida. As Beckham can now attest, though, the biggest roadblock to success in Miami can be Miami itself. The Fusion owner immediately became embroiled in a feud with the mayor over how much the team would pay to play at the downtown-adjacent Orange Bowl. The end result was the Fusion decamping to Fort Lauderdale.
The dreams of a cool, Miami-centric team were replaced with a squad playing in a converted baseball stadium next to an airport, an hour’s drive for many of the planned Miami faithful. Not surprisingly, the team struggled to attract both fans and sponsors.
With the league near death in 2001, it folded the Fusion. Coming just four years after launching the team, it was a major embarrassment.
The short history of the Fusion, though, was a success compared to Chivas USA, the league’s first try at a second franchise in Los Angeles. Again, the league was explicitly aiming for the Hispanic market, partnering with Mexican giants Chivas Guadalajara to launch what was supposed to be the new favorite club for Latinos in southern California.
The problem, though, was that Chivas is not just one of the most popular teams in Mexico, it’s also perhaps the most polarizing. Anyone who was a fan of another Mexican team was immediately turned off by the idea of pulling for an offshoot of hated Chivas. Even some Chivas fans were insulted by being asked to support a watered-down American version.
The club’s on-field results were no better. The team managed the rare feat of having the same number of victories as head coaches (four apiece) in its first season, and was a doormat for most of its existence. A front-office war between two co-owners ended with the parent club’s owner, Jorge Vergara, buying full control. He gutted the team’s payroll, making the squad into a pseudo-B-team for the Mexican club, and was hit with discrimination lawsuits from American employees who were let go for not speaking Spanish.
After 2014, the league bought out Vergara, folded Chivas and re-sold the franchise to the glitzy owners of Los Angeles FC, which begins play this spring.
When Miami finally joins the league, presumably playing in a downtown stadium, MLS finally will have closed the book on two of its sorriest chapters. For longtime league fans, though, the idea of a Miami franchise, or a second LA franchise, always will seem just a little bit dicey.
• In a first for the big five American sports, Los Angeles FC’s local broadcasts will be entirely online. YouTube will be the team’s shirt sponsor and local broadcast partner – the first, but surely not the last, online video streaming service to fill the latter role.
• Multiple reports have indicated that the reigning champions of MLS and Liga MX will play a game sometime this summer. It might not draw much interest outside of Toronto, where the game reportedly will be held, but with MLS so far unable to overcome Mexican teams in the CONCACAF Champions League, another one-off game could give the league a chance to claim some bragging rights.
• Minnesota United striker Christian Ramirez completed his first U.S. national team camp but wasn’t even on the bench for the team’s friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina. Minnesota fans were incensed at the snub, and for good reason. Ramirez, despite being the best goal-scorer of the bunch, was the only striker in camp not included in the lineup. Naturally, the USA failed to score and drew 0-0.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Premier League: Everton at Arsenal, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Ch. 11. The bottom of the Premier League table is so compacted that Everton has only three points in its last six games, flirted with relegation before that, yet still is in the top half of the standings. Arsenal has a raft of new players. Can some fresh faces turn the team around?
La Liga: Barcelona at Espanyol, 9 a.m. Sunday, beIN. Just two weeks ago, Espanyol hosted its more successful crosstown rivals in the Copa del Rey and came away with a 1-0 victory, with Lionel Messi missing a penalty kick. It was Barcelona’s first loss in a meaningful competition this year. Can Espanyol do it again and ruin Barca’s undefeated bid?
Premier League: Liverpool at Tottenham Hotspur, 10:30 a.m. Sunday, NBCSN. Liverpool is the strangest team in the Premier League. Its past two matches were a victory against previously undefeated Manchester City and a loss against then-last-place Swansea City. The Reds have a history of playing well in big games like this one.
Liga MX: Tigres at Pumas, noon Sunday, Univision. It’s early in the season, but Pumas — last in the fall standings — are on the other side of the table after four spring games, undefeated and tied for the league lead. Tigres, though, are on the verge of becoming a dynasty and will present a big early challenge for Pumas.