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What to Expect When You're Expecting MLS

(Photo: Announcement Day/Johnny Wakefield)


by Chris Ashley

So you have been granted a Major League Soccer franchise? Fantastic. Now that the initial burst of adrenaline from the announcement has died down, we need to talk about what happens next.
With just a little more than a year before Charlotte takes the pitch for the first time, many things still need to happen. As we have seen in recent weeks, the organization seems to be moving swiftly to fill out the logistical pieces necessary to this franchise’s success.

But let’s be honest, those types of moves and announcements aren’t the ones that get our blood pumping. We want a coach. We want players. Heck, we want to know what this team will be called.
So, when can we expect to start getting some of the more exciting announcements from a fan perspective? To answer that question, I looked at the timelines of the six most recent MLS expansion sides and when they made six big announcements. From that data, I found six dates we can look forward to in 2020, six dates when we can expect to hear the biggest news about our new team.
Charlotte was officially announced as the 30th MLS franchise on December 17, 2019. Based on the trends of the last several years, I am projecting that the first match of the 2021 season will be March 6. That gives Charlotte a 445-day window to be ready to take the pitch.

This timetable will be the second shortest in recent history with only FC Cincinnati having a shorter timetable of 277 days. But Cincy was already an established USL organization, so the short timeline was not as big of an issue for them.
Every other team I crunched the numbers on (Atl*nta United, Minnesota United, LAFC, Nashville SC, and Inter Miami), all had nearly two years or longer to get ready. That tells you the task that lies ahead of Tepper and Co. for 2019.
There is no announcement that will do more to build excitement for 2021 than establishing this franchise’s identity. Names have been floated out into the fan base, but the excitement for any name will be muted until it is the name
And, I say this with some personal experience in Greenville, regardless of your initial feelings on the name that is ultimately picked, you will learn to love it, live it, and own it. 
Most of the recent expansion teams established their brand more than a year before they officially took the field. And the two that did not reveal it at least a year ahead of time were Minnesota and Cincinnati who used only a slightly modified version of their already established brand.
While the branding sets the visible identity of the team, the manager will help establish the identity on the pitch. While having a manager before any signings are made is not a “must” (in fact, only half of the recent expansion sides hired a manager before making their first signing), the sooner the manager is in place, the quicker he will be able to get the kinds of players he wants into the team.
There have been several recent expansion teams who have signed players in the summer window before their first season and then loaned them out to other teams. I think this could be a valuable tool for Charlotte to take advantage of with this tight window before year one.
The expansion teams that did not bring up a coach with them have typically signed their guy in the summer or fall of the year prior to their first match.
First Player Signing
On average, teams announce their first signings about 300 days prior to their first match. The latest a team announced their first player was 92 days prior (Minnesota) and the earliest was 466 days prior (Nashville). Both of those teams were organizations that were essentially moving up from the second division.
For Charlotte, I think they would like to have a manager in place first, but I don’t think they will wait on that before they identify potential signings. So there is certainly a chance you get a player or two before the manager is announced. 
First Designated Player Signing
The average timeline for a team’s first Designated Player announcement is 111 days before their first match. However, that number is skewed by Minnesota, who didn’t sign their first DP until more than a year after their first match. Most teams signed their first DP about 200 days prior.
Russell Varner wrote about who the team might sign as their first Designated Player (in the article that preceded this one), but as he knows, the timing of this major signing is not entirely up to them. I certainly think they will aim to have at least one DP on day one (although I can see David Tepper wanting to make a splash and fill all three spots). But the big question will be who is actually available during this summer's transfer window (yes, MLS fans, you'll need to learn about these windows too). If there is a player they already know they want now, I could see them making that move and announcement this coming summer. Otherwise, they may have to wait until 2021 and the January window to make their first big move.

Primary Kit Release
Most teams that I looked at released their primary and secondary kits at the same time, just weeks before their first match. Atl*nta United, however, released theirs 110 days before their first match. I could see Tepper and company wanting to do something similar and having a kit release event in Uptown, but I think that will ultimately depend on how the league feels the league-wide release goes this year. MLS likes to keep things uniform.
Secondary Kit Release
Instead of "home and away" kits, each MLS team has a primary kit, usually with their main color (or white) as the basis, and a secondary kit, with a contrasting color scheme (or black) as their "secondary." These secondary kits are almost always released about two weeks prior to the start of the season. The “outlier” in the teams I looked at again was Atl*nta, who released theirs three weeks prior to their first game, during halftime of their first pre-season match.

Charlotte Timeline Predictions
Below, I present dates for each of the categories above. I took two separate types of averages from the timelines of the six recent expansion teams I examined. I then took the median date of the two corresponding Charlotte dates I came up with. I offer those dates here, along with my personal opinion of when things will likely take place.

Brand: Wednesday, April 8, 2020 – I think this date may not be that far off. But, I think if the branding is locked in and polished off in time, it would be a really smart move to release it the last week of February so that it can be talked about during the opening week of the 2020 MLS season.

Manager: Saturday, November 28, 2020 – So, this date is one where Inter Miami’s nonsense of hiring a manager just last week skewed the numbers. There is no way Charlotte waits this long to hire their gaffer. If I were to guess, I would think the organization already has some names in mind and will see who’s available this summer after the European seasons end. They'll probably make a hire shortly thereafter.

First Signing: Sunday, July 12, 2020 – While they likely would not make this kind of announcement on a Sunday, I don’t think the timeline is that crazy, and I think you’ll see the first players signed in the middle of this summer.
First Designated Player: Thursday, November 26, 2020 – Aside from there being no way they make an announcement on Thanksgiving Day, this average isn’t a terrible estimate. This category may be the hardest to pin down. In one sense, they would likely be working on these deals around this time, and I don’t think the team would sign a DP in the summer unless it was an opportunity that just couldn’t be passed up and they were able to line up a half-season loan. I do think that the most likely scenario is that the team’s first DP is announced after the new year when the transfer window opens in most places across the globe.
Primary Kit: Thursday, February 4, 2021 – This one is hard. My gut feeling is that Charlotte will launch their primary kit much earlier than this if they can. However, again this season, the league is rolling out all the kits at the same time. If that goes well, I could see them wanting to do that again in 2021. Nashville and Miami, expansion teams for 2020, still don't have their shirts officially launched. Be patient.
Secondary Kit: Friday, February 19, 2021 – This is probably pretty close too. The inaugural secondary kit will be the only kit worn for a single season (teams cycle one shirt every year), so don’t expect it to be anything amazing, or for it to be released more than a week or two before the season.

All Charlotte fans hope that these predictions are wrong, that news comes sooner, and that we can all have tattoos of the MLS Charlotte crest on our arms by Memorial Day (or at least some of us do). But judging by the last few expansion teams and their timelines, it seems that patience is in order. I guess the Collective will need to delay that mint-colored tank top order until next spring after all.

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