Handicapping MLS Expansion: July Edition

FC Cincinnati

Our monthly look at MLS expansion shows cities on the rise — Charlotte, Cincinnati — and some cities where a new stadium has been unexpectedly challenging — yeah, we’re looking at you, Miami.

Fans in multiple cities are eagerly awaiting any news of MLS expansion down the road, and plenty of financial plans are being prepared in anticipation of the circuit moving to 24 or even 26 teams.

This is our third monthly look at where MLS might be expanding down the road. That MLS is expanding is certain; where MLS is expanding is anything but certain. It’s fascinating to see how prospects change from month to month: MLS is certainly a hot brand, and there are many owners who want in. The MLS expansion process is well-defined: it begins with a solid local ownership group, followed by development of a soccer-only facility. Too many folks commenting on this process tend to look at markets first and disregard the ownership side of the equation. For example: you’d think Phoenix would be a great MLS market, and perhaps it will be someday. But with no MLS-level ownership group on the horizon and the lack of public enthusiasm for a new soccer stadium, it’s hard to see MLS expansion coming to the Valley anytime soon.

So here’s our look at MLS expansion, which is turning into an interesting, fluid situation. We’re assuming that the current plans for Atlanta (where construction of a new 2017 stadium now calls for a June 1 opening — but that date is far from certain), Minnesota (where team owners have discussed a 2017 debut, though construction of a new Midway soccer stadium have been delayed) and LAFC are on track.

Sacramento: 1:2 There’s a new stadium plan in place, solid ownership, and great community support. Judging by some MLS front-office chatter, this really is a matter of when, not if.

Miami: 1:1 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. It’s not a done deal, and the David Beckham group is still seeking more investors, with Milwaukee Bucks co-owner Wes Edens pitched this month. But it’s alarming that an ownership group with such luminaries is looking for new investors. MLS wants Miami something fierce: it’s a trendy market and the demographics are perfect.

Cincinnati: 1-1 FC Cincinnati just rolls on in the USL. Last night the team set a USL attendance record in only 10 games, and a weekend friendly against Crystal Palace F.C. drew 35,061 fans to Nippert Stadium — a crowd larger than any MLS crowd over the weekend. (A caveat: the top five MLS teams in terms of attendance were all on the road.) A renovated Nippert Stadium helps create the modern soccer experience, but clearly the owners of FC Cincinnati have put into place a game plan positioning 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, and FC Cincinnati ownership is openly talking MLS.

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 Diego: 5-1 With an investment group led by San Diego Padres owner Peter Seidler and a new-stadium plan emerging for the Mission Valley area, the prospects of MLS in San Diego immensely improved over last month’s ranking.

San Antonio: 6-1 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.

Charlotte: 8-1 A newcomer to this list, the prospects of a Charlotte MLS teams surged with significant progress on a Memorial Stadium renovation that would allow for future renovations to accommodate MLS and a large crowd for a friendly at Bank of America Stadium. There has been some concern about the Charlotte sports scene being saturated, but with the USL’s Independence drawing good crowds to a subpar facility, the city’s chance of landing MLS has surged in recent weeks.

St. Louis: 11-1 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 (indeed, USL’s St. Louis FC sells out matches — but the stadium capacity is only 5,513), but a committed ownership group hasn’t been able to push a new stadium plan.

Las Vegas: 15-1 Public funding for a new $2.1-billion domed stadium is now far from a done deal, as an influential committee trimmed a potential public component. And with the NHL in town, perhaps the future of soccer in Sin City is hosting big friendlies, not MLS matches.

Indianapolis: 20-1 A good ownership group is in place for the NASL’s Indy Eleven, but past attempts to secure state funding for a new stadium have come up short. Still, Indy Eleven has proven there’s passion for soccer in the city, so any talk of MLS can’t be dismissed out of hand.

Nashville: 25-1 The new USL team seems to be doing everything right so far, bringing in the city as team owners discuss a soccer-only facility. But that stadium announcement isn’t expected to come any time soon. A USL team will show if there’s interest in pro soccer in the Music City.

Louisville: 50-1 Louisville City SC is setting attendance records, hitting five figures at a recent match at Slugger Field. The city may be too big for USL and too small for MLS — but an upcoming feasibility report on a new stadium may give Wayne Estopinal and his investors a roadmap to the future of the sport in Louisville.

Austin: 75-1 Again, no ownership group and no stadium. Austin is viable only if San Antonio fails to land an MLS expansion team.

Phoenix: 100-1 No owner and no facility — just a lot of fans whose support of soccer is mixed. Given the other facility issues in the Valley (Suns, Coyotes, Diamondbacks), talk of a new soccer stadium is pretty nonexistent.

Image courtesy FC Cincinnati.

RELATED STORIES: Handicapping MLS Expansion: June Edition; Handicapping MLS Expansion: May Edition

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