Major League Soccer (MLS) is flexing its muscle, and celebrating new-found financial strength, as it plans to announce two new expansion cities later this year. And when they do, they will not be finished.

The league, currently playing a season with 22 teams, plans to expand to 26 teams by 2020, and to 28 teams soon after. The most surprising aspect of this plan is not that it is happening in a country where soccer was once considered a sad afterthought. Most surprising is the fact that no one seems particularly surprised at all. In fact, cities are lining up to prove to the league their potential as soccer powerhouses.

Some cities are even trading on the ‘street cred’ of the legends of the game to sell their vision to the league.

Legends of the game get involved

Tampa Bay Rowdies, a reborn franchise from the 1970’s NASL days, has locked in 35-year-old England legend Joe Cole to Captain the team – currently playing in the 2nd division USL – and to participate in the “project” of bringing the team up to MLS. Cole has committed what appears to be the remainder of his playing career to Tampa Bay, recently signing a contract extension that will keep him with the team until he is 38. If the Tampa bid is successful, Cole could potentially find himself playing as one of the league's oldest players during the Rowdies inaugural season in the MLS.

The chance of pulling off such an intriguing accomplishment is no doubt the key selling point to a player of Cole’s stature, in embracing such an unusual move.

Phoenix Rising, another USL team, has recently recruited none other than Didier Drogba, one of the game's true legends, to perform a similar role for them.

In addition to playing for the team, the 39-year-old has reportedly bought into the Phoenix MLS bid to such a degree that he will also perform an additional behind-the-scenes role with the team’s management and ownership.

A new conversation about soccer in the U.S.

Gone are the days when sports pundits questioned the wisdom of fielding professional soccer at all in the United States.

In their place is an entirely different conversation. The debate now focuses more on details; are 28 teams the right number? Will MLS rise to the competitive level of the top European leagues and, if so, when?

First comes next season’s LAFC, a well-hyped effort to capture the remaining unaffiliated soccer fans in the fickle LA sports environment. A city of L.A.’s size and diversity seemed like a no-brainer a few years ago, when the LAFC ownership – a group that includes a few celebrities including the likes of Will Farrell – announced plans to replace the ill-fated Chivas USA. Another seeming no-brainer was David Beckham’s Miami bid. “Miami Beckham United,” as the project is known, still looks like it will move forward, though it has repeatedly run into roadblocks with the city of Miami as it has tried to negotiate a new stadium deal.

High stakes competition sees its first casualty

Beyond LA and Miami, the Tampa and Phoenix bids are in competition with a host of other cities. San Antonio, Sacramento, Nashville, and Cincinnati are among a group that also includes underdogs such as Raliegh, Indianapolis, San Diego and Detroit. These cities are playing a high stakes game that has also seen its first casualty; St. Louis was considered one of the front runners until the recent failure at the ballot box of a stadium funding measure. On the flip side, Tampa’s successful ballot measure, approved by voters May 2nd, has no doubt elevated the Rowdies chances of prevailing over other bids.

Unlike past expansions, MLS has the luxury of being picky this time around.

A city must bring more than money to the table. Today’s soccer environment shows unexpected strength in unexpected places. FC Cincinnati has been setting USL attendance records. It is statistics like these that MLS will find most compelling as they pick and choose between the many bids in front of them.

What will MLS look like five years from now? It is impossible to know for sure. One thing is certain, though, the game of soccer has permanently planted its flag in the United States and soccer enthusiasts are dreaming of big things to come.

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