Turns out being an MLS expansion team isn’t that easy

It’s hard to build an expansion team in professional sports. Mediocrity is a worthy ambition for first-year newbies, and even that may be a stretch… But everybody knows all that, right? Proclamations directly from the mouth of Captain Obvious, yeah?

Only, not so much. It seems a few Major League Soccer supporters and media types were sipping from some overly optimistic streams when it came to projections on this year’s debs, Orlando City Soccer Club and New York City FC.

Go back and look at some of the optimistic songs being sung for the pair of expansion clubs – the same two now slogging through the inevitable troubles of a newly constructed club. Too many of the forecasts ignored history and concerns that weren’t exactly hidden.

New England Revolution v New York City FC

Getty Images

A lot of it was based on stars like Orlando’s Kaká, or David Villa (right) and Frank Lampard in New York. From this early look at Orlando City SC: “ … there are increasing signs that expansion growing pains may not be part of Year One in Orlando.” Or this one on the Big Apple’s second team: “With big-name [Designated Players] and a top quality coach having assembled a talented squad chocked full of MLS veterans and young talent, expect NYCFC to make a real splash in the Eastern conference during their inaugural season.”

Management was complicit, too, in inflating expectations. At Orlando City, Adrian Heath talked about wanting to win it all. As in MLS Cup. As in this year!

And at Yankee Stadium, even NYCFC manager Jason Kreis, as humble and respectful about the game as they come, underestimated the difficulty of building a team from scratch. All due respect to the youngest manager yet to win an MLS Cup, but he should have studied his history a little more.

His club could still get it together. Lampard is still en route, after all, and NYCFC officials are still talking up the possibility of a third DP signing this summer. But the former England midfielder isn’t going to fix everything, and if New York is destined to finish mid-pack, it’s already got some catching up to do. Same for the new club from Florida.

Orlando City has won two of eight, currently sitting seventh of 10 teams in the East. That’s better than Kreis’ club, which has just one win in nine matches. NYCFC sits ninth and might be last but for Montreal, the league’s only winless club.

AP Photo

AP Photo

Inferior depth is the predictable bugaboo with these clubs, of course. That and the fact that too many of the starters at the Citrus Bowl and on that silly field at Yankee Stadium are, if we’re being honest, MLS backups.

It’s just this simple: the rosters aren’t good enough, which was always going to be the major issue. This isn’t MLS of 1998 anymore (when expansion Chicago had such stunning initial success). The league is more mature now, and it’s difficult to win as an expansion team. In this way, MLS no different than other U.S. sports.

NYCFC Lampard Soccer

AP

Let’s examine what Kreis (right) is working with. Mehdi Ballouchy, a 32-year-old career backup, has started six matches, and is on pace to start more matches than he has since his rookie year in 2006. Center back Chris Wingert, a longtime MLS starter, will soon turn 33. More than that, he’s almost always been an outside back. Midfielder Andrew Jacobson has some utility, but he was a backup last year at FC Dallas (before he was traded) and seems a bit out of place in a more technical system.

The list goes on, but the point is this: starting from scratch, it’s hard to assemble 12-14 players who are legitimate starters.

The issue at Orlando City was a bit different. It’s certainly commendable that Heath had so much faith in his United Soccer League (third-tier) holdovers, eight of them. But it was a blind spot, a mistake that other expansion teams have made when bridging the substantial gap between domestic soccer’s lower tiers and MLS.

Another factor to consider here: When Toronto, San Jose, Philadelphia and Montreal joined MLS, they had a solo run in the expansion draft. NYCFC and Orlando had to split the pool.

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Of the last eight teams to join the league, only Seattle placed better than sixth in its conference. The Sounders placed third in their initial MLS season in 2009, a mere point behind the Galaxy and Houston. If we remove Seattle from the equation, the eight clubs to join MLS over the last 15 years averaged 7.5 wins in their initial campaign. By comparison, MLS playoff teams averaged 15.5 wins last year.

Seattle’s early bloom surely is part of the problem, the indulgence that caused a subsequent tummy ache borne of those overly optimistic projections. Maybe it was Seattle’s liberal spending; they signed former Arsenal man Freddie Ljungberg right away, in a day when it wasn’t quite so common to go big game hunting on the global market. Or maybe it was all that Rave Green energy from record breaking crowds that drove that expansion-year success. Whatever it was, Seattle’s fine first season was also this: the exception rather than the rule. That should be clear to everyone now.

In a way it’s easy to understand how everyone could have gotten a little carried away. Among MLS supporters, the perennial favorite topic is who else will be in MLS? We love some expansion talk. On these two, plenty of grass roots enthusiasm has turned into wonderfully healthy crowds; we wrote about how Orlando in particular had the feel of the league’s next Major League “next big thing.”

As for competitive pursuits: it just takes time to get there.

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