Thursday, August 2, 2018

MLR Expansion Good For Now But Could Test Player Depth

Major League Rugby is set to expand to ten teams next year with Los Angeles, New York, and Ontario all coming on board and one question that fans have justifiably been asking is whether or not the talent pool can support the new teams. In short term the answer is yes but if MLR continues to expand those questions will continue to pop up.

At ten teams MLR is already double the size of what PRO Rugby was in their only season in 2016. It could be easily argued that is a good thing. MLR does things different than PRO and rather than put together teams that took Eagles pool players and scattered them. MLR has concentrated more on taking Eagles player pool players but keeping them closer to home. For example, Glendale was loaded with Eagles. That certain has benefits to it in that not all of your squad has to be paid a full-time wage. However, most people would agree that the standard of play in PRO Rugby was slightly better than MLR this last year because PRO teams were deeper. As MLR goes that will change.

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So how can the league support the expansion of three sides if teams, especially in the Texas-Louisiana area, struggle with depth? At least for this next round of expansion the answer is pretty simple: the new teams are pulling from already deep talent pools that weren't exactly tapped by MLR. New York has a ton of depth in the region as exhibited by Rugby United New York's success on the pitch this year. They can create a team that should contend for a title in year one without having to pull from existing MLR sides. The same goes for Ontario. They have already been up and running with a strong team and don't need to take away from other teams. Los Angeles might be the exception. It would not be a shock to see them take some players from San Diego but at the same time Southern California is loaded with top players. Plus, they can always pick off a few from the Bay Area.

Where MLR might be in trouble in the future is if they expand to places that don't have a lot of depth or where they might cannibalize other teams. We saw that last year with the Texas-Louisiana sides. If there had only been one team in the region then they might have had the depth to survive the season but with the talent split amongst three teams they were the ones to miss out on the playoffs. The only areas of the country that might be able to support expansion in the future while keeping strong sides is the Bay Area, the Chicago area, and the area between Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. As things stand other areas of the country simply don't have enough depth to have a strong MLR side.

There are solutions. MLR could continue to bring over international players. You saw some players have success coming from overseas this last year. However, if you bring in too many international players you run the risk of cutting off opportunities for young Americans, particularly at key positions. That might make MLR entertaining but it would really help grow the American talent pool.

If we had to give MLR a suggestion it would be to stop expansion for five years after these next three teams come on board. It is essential to build the brand but making a good product. If teams can't keep up because they don't have depth people will be able to tell. The worst thing that could happen to MLR in the next few years is contraction. Expanding too quickly could lead to contraction. Staying at a 10 team league with the current playing pool is best for the competition until they are more established.

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