Handicapping MLS Expansion: May Edition

FC Cincinnati

If there’s any serious sport in the professional-soccer world past the game on the pitch, it’s plotting future MLS expansion. The last time we explored the issue FC Cincinnati had not played a single match, a proposal for a new downtown Detroit stadium had not been announced, and a new Miami stadium was a lock.

So much has changed in a month.

FC Cincinnati has captured the attention of the pro soccer world with a four-game streak that saw MLS-level crowds flocking to a renovated and lively Nippert Stadium; two NBA owners and serious investors — including one personally leading downtown Detroit’s comeback — have pitched the new Detroit stadium; and the new Miami stadium is far from a lock, as Miami-Dade County and David Beckham’s investment group are at odds over the terms of a three-acre parcel of land needed for a new soccer stadium.

So, with these developments in mind, we’re moving ahead with a new assessment of future MLS expansion prospects. We’re assuming that the current plans for Atlanta (where construction of a new 2017 stadium is on schedule), Minnesota (where legislative approval is still needed on tax breaks before construction begins on a new facility for 2018) and LAFC are on track. We’re also following what officials say they’ll look at when evaluating MLS expansion bids, and the first criteria — by a wide margin — is a solid ownership group. Too many folks commenting on this process tend to look at markets first and disregard the ownership side of the equation.

Without further ado, here is our list of contenders and our odds on landing an MLS expansion team in the next round of expansion.

Miami: 1:2 Despite the hiccups, many in the MLS world believe a new Miami stadium will be a reality, and that an expansion team will be playing there in 2018. Still, it’s not a done deal.

Sacramento: even money There’s a new stadium plan in place, solid ownership, and great community support. Really, judging by some MLS front-office chatter, this really is a matter of when, not if.

Cincinnati: 2-1 Yes, it’s only a four-game streak for the new USL team, but clearly there’s a pent-up demand for pro soccer in Cincinnati. A renovated Nippert Stadium helps create the modern soccer experience, but clearly the owners of FC Cincinnati have put into place a game plan that has positioned the team for an MLS move. The beauty of the plan: it didn’t take tens of millions of dollars to launch the USL squad and adapt Nippert Stadium for pro soccer; rather, it took some pro-sports expertise and a sound game plan. There are already plans for more Nippert Stadium upgrades in 2017.

Detroit: 4-1 With a proposal from two NBA owners already successful in their fields — including Dan Gilbert, whose big investments in downtown Detroit development has brought new life to a sad situation — the real issue isn’t whether a team can succeed, it’s whether the team can procure funding and land for a new stadium.

San Antonio: 6-1 Tim Holt, who helped build Orlando City SC from a USL squad to an MLS juggernaut as vice president of development, is now San Antonio FC’s managing director. With a stadium built to be expanded to MLS expectations, a solid soccer market and some serious sports backing in the form of Spurs Sports & Entertainment, we expect to hear more in coming months about an MLS bid.

Las Vegas: 10-1. With David Beckham personally pitching an MLS franchise at a proposed new Las Vegas domed stadium, you’d think this was a marriage made in a Strip wedding chapel. But there are a few things missing here. First, despite Beckham’s talk, he’s not currently being positioned as a Vegas MLS team owner. (Too bad: he’d be a natural.) Second, a $1.4-billion new stadium is from far from a done deal: it requires diverting a tourism funds from the Las Vegas Convention Center — which benefits all Vegas casinos and hotels — to a new stadium that arguably enriches one casino owner: Sheldon Adelson.

St. Louis: 20-1 After the departure of the Rams to Los Angeles, there was a lot of talk about a new downtown soccer stadium to replace the proposed NFL stadium. Since then: nothing. St. Louis is considered by many to be a good soccer market, but with no committed ownership group and no stadium plan in the works, it may be falling off MLS’s radar.

San Diego: 25-1 A laid-back market, the lure from San Diego would be a new Mission Bay stadium shared with the San Diego State football team. But with no ownership group stepping up (remember, this is the #1 priority for MLS when evaluating expansion plans) and many, many roadblocks to a new stadium, the odds are not good at this time.

Austin: 40-1 Again, no ownership group and no stadium. Austin is viable only if San Antonio fails to land an MLS expansion team.

Nashville: 50-1 With the USL and NASL tussling over Music City, the natural reaction to cheer for the ownership group with MLS expansion ambitions. Too early to tell yet whether soccer is popular enough on a weekly basis to sustain MLS dreams.

Image of FC Cincinnati match at Nippert Stadium courtesy of the team.

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