Storylines has been crunching numbers and flipping through the record books nonstop ahead of this weekend’s matchup with St. Louis CITY SC. Long division? Actually kind of fun. For their first year in the league, these guys are doing pretty well, and my math backs it up. My preseason prediction of a last place finish may not have aged very well, but I’m confident that my arithmetic skills will hold up a bit better.
With 50 points from 30 games, St. Louis is currently averaging 1.67 points per game in their inaugural season. At that rate, they’re on track to finish the season with at least 56 points, which would’ve been good enough for second place in the West last season. They’re leading the conference at the moment, and they have been for most of the season. They’re not the first newbies to have a good start to life in Major League Soccer, but they’ve got a chance to go down in history as the cream of the expansion team crop.
Though the league started with just 10 teams in 1996, we’re on track to see a 30-team league by 2025. Across league history, three teams have folded, one has relocated, and 23 expansion sides have been added over time. Not every expansion franchise is created equal, though; in fact, expansion teams have achieved wildly different results over the years, from silverware to wooden spoons and everything in between. Let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and Cincinnati to see how Mound City stacks up against Major League Soccer’s laundry list of expansion teams.
As the league grows and time goes on, expansion sides face stiffer and stiffer competition upon joining up. Not only are there more teams to compete with every year, but the established teams are also gaining valuable experience and honing their processes the whole time.
In recent years, the biggest expansion successes haven’t been able to complete their Cinderella stories. Nashville’s run to the Conference Semifinal in the abbreviated 2020 season is the closest anyone has come in the modern era, while Atlanta (1.62 ppg) and LAFC (1.68 ppg) both made it to the first round of the playoffs in their debut seasons.
The last expansion side to win any silverware in year one was coincidentally the first one as well. In 1998, the Chicago Fire joined MLS with a bang, earning 1.75 ppg and winning both MLS Cup and the U.S. Open Cup in the same year. The Fire’s debut remains the gold standard for any side joining the league, even though Bob Bradley and company joined a much different league compared to what we have today.
Don’t Worry, It Gets Better
More often than not, expansion teams have mediocre seasons. They hover around the playoff line, win a few exciting matches, and ultimately resign themselves to focusing on getting better next season. You’ll hear about them ad nauseam in the early stages of the season while they’re shiny and new, before they become just another team in an ever-expanding league.
Whether we like it or not, this is where Minnesota United’s 2017 season falls. We averaged 1.06 ppg, earning 36 points from 34 games. There were good times and bad, but ultimately, it was just a stepping stone to future growth. Since then, the club has gone on to a Western Conference Final and qualified for the playoffs in four of the six seasons we’ve participated in. Gradual improvement is better than nothing, though it certainly would have been more exciting to pull a Chicago Fire and win the whole thing in year one.
But do we really want to end up like the Fire? I don’t think so.
The likes of Toronto FC and NYCFC have had a few more years than us to perfect their process, and they’ve proven that expansion teams can grow into the league and prosper. Both clubs have found success after lackluster starts, winning MLS Cups and signing high-profile players to light up the league. Toronto only managed 0.83 ppg when they debuted in 2007, while NYC scraped by with just 1.08 ppg in 2015.
Only six teams have averaged below one point per game in their first MLS season, and only three of those teams have been below 0.8 ppg. Say hello to the worst expansion teams of all time: Chivas USA, Real Salt Lake, and FC Cincinnati. Chivas USA and RSL joined the league in 2005, both losing 22 of their 32 matches and earning 0.56 and 0.63 ppg, respectively. The Utahns would eventually recover and become valuable members of the league, while Chivas’ days were numbered from the very start. They ultimately folded in 2014, leaving LA with just one team until LAFC filled the void.
While Chivas and RSL can be excused for their poor performance in the wild early days of MLS, Cincinnati proved to the world that modern expansion teams can still hit the lowest of lows. Their debut season in 2019 saw the Orange and Blue earn just 24 points from 34 games, losing 22 matches and truly earning their -44 goal difference. Their clip of 0.71 ppg outdid the disaster classes we saw in 2005, but wow, that’s a rough way to start.
So what does year one really mean in the grand scheme of things? Nothing! The Fire have been terrible for a while, and Cincinnati is about to win the Supporters’ Shield. The script is liable to flip pretty frequently in this league; all we can do is hang on and enjoy the good times when they come around. Year one is fun, but it gives little to no indication of how any new team will perform in the future.
Regardless of what comes next for St. Louis, they’re in a good moment right now. They’ve got a talented roster and the best goal difference in the West. If the Loons want to take CITY down like they did earlier this season, they’re going to have to bring their A-game, and maybe a little extra on top of that.
An MNUFC win this weekend would be huge for their playoff hopes, and it would endanger St. Louis’ bid to complete the best expansion season of all time. Those pesky upstarts need to be reminded that this league isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, and as Mick Jagger once said, you can’t always get what you want.
Minnesota United FC vs. St. Louis CITY SC
Allianz Field | Saint Paul, Minnesota
09.23.2023 | MLS Game #29
7:30 p.m. CT (Available on MLS Season Pass, 1500 ESPN)