After months of work, the three current finalists for an MLS expansion team are still on the outside looking in—and there are other markets that could rise should there be something unexpected in the process.
Although FC Cincinnati came to a preliminary agreement for a new stadium last week, the MLS Board of Directors declined to move forward on the award of an expansion team to the city. Now, this could have been purely procedural—MLS loves the big reveal with a well-attended ceremony, with loud supporter groups and corporate sponsors on hand—but it could also reveal hesitation from MLS to award a team to Cincinnati, Sacramento or Detroit ownership groups.
When it comes to MLS expansion, it’s clear to remember one thing: MLS makes the rules, and MLS can change the rules. Originally, MLS officials said they expected to make a decision on the league’s 26th team by the beginning of the 2018 season, but that date slipped after FC Cincinnati’s struggles to locate a new-stadium site and Sacramento Republic FC’s being asked to lure a lead, big-buck investor. (Why is this important? MLS is an owner-operator league, where investors put their money into the league as a whole and retain rights to operate in a specific market.) The third finalist, a group led by Dan Gilbert, Tom Gores and the Ford family that envisions a new Detroit team playing out of the indoor Ford Field, has been quiet in recent months. (Something to remember here: the fourth finalist, Nashville SC, was already awarded an expansion franchise.) While it’s assumed the next MLS expansion team will come from this trio of finalists, MLS’s black-box selection process basically lets the league do what it wants in the expansion process.
As you’ll recall, these four finalists came from an original list of 12 potential ownership groups submitting bids for an MLS expansion team. At this moment, MLS is at 23 teams with the addition of LAFC this season, with Nashville SC and Miami on tap in coming seasons. The goal is 28 teams, say MLS officials, so we’re looking at another round of expansion after the current round.
The eight other groups submitting bids came from Charlotte, Indianapolis, Phoenix, Raleigh/Durham, St. Louis, San Antonio, San Diego and Tampa/St. Petersburg. One group dropped out of the bidding, as St. Louis investors did not receive public funding of a new stadium. Of the seven groups left, some are extremely viable, while other have some serious issues. Here’s a look at each, ranked by their viability.
Phoenix Solid ownership group, solid stadium plan (rendering shown above), solid market. We would be utterly amazed if Phoenix didn’t land an expansion team in the next few years.
San Diego Solid ownership, cloudy stadium plan, good market after defection of the NFL’s Chargers. If the SoccerCity initiative fails on a public referendum this fall, it will be hard for this group to rebound quickly.
Raleigh/Durham Things have been awfully quiet on the MLS expansion front in North Carolina, as state legislators didn’t show much inclination to help North Carolina FC owner Steve Malik on his plan for a new downtown Raleigh stadium. But Raleigh/Durham would seem to be the perfect market—demographically, at least—for MLS.
San Antonio On paper, the San Antonio bid is strong, with a great ownership group and support for elected officials in place. In reality, the prospect of the city landing a team is seriously threatened by Anthony Precourt’s attempt to move his Columbus Crew to Austin. No, it’s not fair, but it is the status quo. Should Precourt succeed, you can move San Antonio to the bottom of this list.
Indianapolis Indy Eleven owner Ersal Ozdemir has had a great 2018, moving his team from NASL to USL and shifting the team’s home venue to Lucas Oil Stadium, where the team has drawn well in its first two matches. Will this momentum be enough to land an MLS expansion team? It will probably take some heavy hitters in the ownership group to make this happen.
Tampa Bay/St. Pete Bill Edwards was seeking new investors for his Tampa Bay Rowdies (USL) earlier this year, and there was little indication a future MLS team was part of the sales pitch. Edwards has been the mover and shaker behind the shift of the Rowdies from poor-drawing team to a well-positioned USL team with its own downtown St. Petersburg home. The uncertainty surrounding the Tampa Bay Rays and Tropicana Field certainly clouds any public funding of an Al Lang Stadium expansion.
Charlotte Solid ownership, cloudy stadium plan, good market. The NFL’s Charlotte Panthers have sucked all the oxygen of the local sports market, with the team for sale and a leading contender to land the team saying a new stadium is a must. Mecklenburg County is moving forward with a plan to renovate Memorial Stadium for USL soccer.
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