A player well versed in the expansion season experience shares the keys to first-year success
Expansion seasons are unique. A brand new, enthusiastic team is tasked with navigating the turbulent MLS waters, which is no easy task. They have a remarkable capacity to humble organizations and extinguish the burning enthusiasm present at the start of the season. Having played on three expansion sides, I am a self-proclaimed connoisseur in this field.
I’m not a pessimist about expansion seasons, however, as I’ve learned quite a bit about what works and what doesn’t. Nelson Mandela famously stated, “I never lose. I either win or learn.” Simply put, most expansion teams learn a great deal in their first year. The intricacies and dynamics of an expansion season are difficult to pinpoint but I hope to paint you a useful, inside picture of the landscape.
Expansion sides have become somewhat of a joke around the MLS community. Viewed as the cute puppy who’s trying his best to play with the big boys, an expansion side surprises everyone if it does well. Fans of other MLS clubs are upset if their squad drops points to expansion sides while expansion supporters are overjoyed at the sight of each and every point their new team earns. Coaches are apprehensive about taking the job at the new club due to concerns about control, job security (a nice illusion in professional soccer), and the grim fate of most of their predecessors in similar situations. For most players, expansion seasons evoke a feeling of nervous optimism. The instability of the coach’s position leaves the players that he brings in vulnerable at the end of the season. Past expansion organizations became revolving doors for coaches and players, which creates an atmosphere of angst. Building a club identity in MLS takes time. There are, however, common denominators that can be implemented in expansion years to speed up the process to success.
Preseason represents the formative point of the budding organization and an overarching identity begins to emerge. Pushing themselves to their physical limits, players bust their asses to impress the newly appointed coaching staff. Straightforward, clear communication from the coaches to the players is paramount. If the coach is unable to articulate his demands to his players, then the team will suffer and his tenure will be brief. A transparent, direct philosophy set forth by the gaffer is the foundation for success. Without this, the team becomes directionless and suffers from a lack of cohesion when times get tough during the long and arduous MLS season. The identity within the squad is the roadmap necessary to get through the challenging moments of the season. Most expansion sides start off hot, riding the energy of the preseason and playing in front of their fans for the first time. In the subsequent months, however, results begin to slip away for the teams with fragile, undefined or nonexistent identities. The good news is this: succeeding the first year is difficult but not impossible.
MLS is as much a passion-on-the-day type of league as it is a tactical and athletic one. If one team shows up with more dedication on game day, they will typically walk away with points. This is not a criticism of the league itself, but an outright truth known by every MLS player and coach. It’s not a league dominated by the same select few teams year after year, but rather a collection of competitive squads trying to get the best of each other on the given day. This particular aspect of MLS grants expansion teams legitimate belief that winning a championship is feasible in year one.
The fact is, all MLS teams struggle at one point or another in the season. The difference lies in the “been there, done that” attitude of some experienced teams (i.e. LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake), who habitually revert back to their identity and ride it to the playoffs. Expansion teams don’t have this anchor. Fortunately, the optimism at the beginning of the season can be transformed into confident conviction by establishing actionable intentions and goals. But why doesn’t it happen? Why don’t we see expansion excitement lead to success?
Expansion year success hinges on what goes on off the field just as much as on. While players and coaches develop cohesion on the pitch, the front office staff labors to make things run behind the scenes. Effective grassroots marketing campaigns throughout the city are crucial in order to generate the buzz and recruitment needed to gain season ticket holders. This includes a variety of advertising operations, as well as various team swag launches, and the countless “get to know you” player interviews that supporters tend to appreciate.
Players are commonly asked to be more involved and accessible during this time as fans begin to discover the team. If the process is coordinated and professional, the players tend to respond positively and become unified with the central theme of club. In the absence of an organization’s competence in these matters, players defect and tend to feel isolated from the “family” they were just adopted into. Broadcasting an exclusive, uniform and consistent message out to the public compels the players to buy in to the identity of their new club. The players don’t simply wish to “be a part of inaugural history.” We want to build an everlasting legacy of achievement.
Another thing players yearn for is a home stadium with a wild, ear-piercing ambience where the solidarity is tangible. The fact is, some teams have superior home field advantages to others. This is not a revolutionary statement, but it’s a clear observation. There is a subtle, yet distinct difference between home field advantage at Yankee Stadium and Stade Saputo. The dimensions of the field and the soccer-specificity of the stadium matter more than casual observers may realize.
The most successful teams make their home field a fortress and expansion teams can do themselves a huge favor by completing stadium plans before the start of their inaugural season. Making the atmosphere as soccer-specific as possible doesn’t guarantee a greater point total over the course of the long season, but it helps. For example, it’s great to have a 60,000-seat stadium but if you only have 12,000 fans attending games, the soccer experience will suffer (just ask New England and DC United).
Toronto FC is the perfect case study of this in the past year. The soccer experience at BMO Field was amplified through renovations and the team responded on the field by reaching MLS Cup. The club’s return on investment manifested itself immediately, simply by revitalizing the soccer atmosphere within the stadium. Now Toronto FC has a fortress (and a huge increase in average attendance) for the foreseeable future. While the front office deals with these affairs, the players themselves attend to the off-field logistics and complications that come with changing locations.
Players are uprooting their families and moving to a new city (or country), which poses a challenge to the office staff in particular. Some players and their families need visas and green cards, while others may need real estate leads and school recommendations for their children. If properly staffed, competent clubs expedite this process and help players sort out these issues well before the start of the season. This is a commonly overlooked problem. Players do not want to be agonizing about these details while also trying to focus on the high demands of the season. These matters need to be taken care of and are not divorced from the success of the team. The handling of these seemingly small issues is usually a good measure of the overall professionalism of the club. In my experience, the organizations that approach the little things with integrity and assurance are the ones that prosper. They say football is a business and the best businesses operate and thrive on solid principles.
To sum up, expansion seasons are an art as much as they are a science. Each city, club and fanbase is different. What works at one club may never work at another. However, certain universal commandments apply to successful inaugural seasons and the clubs that respect these standards are on the path to expansion glory.