Handicapping the Next MLS Expansion Round: July 2018 Edition

San Diego MLS Stadium rendering

Time changes all things, and that’s nowhere more obvious than in our July 2018 column on the next MLS expansion round. With no clear path yet for MLS expansion, things are truly up in the air—and changing weekly.

With teams #27 and #28 up in the air, there’s no firm deadline for awarding the expansion teams, and right now there’s no list of contenders. We do expect a list to be developed in coming months, but right now we have Sacramento and Detroit officially seeking an expansion team and in discussions with the league about the next course of action. In Detroit, the potential MLS owners have raised the possibility of installing a retractable roof at Ford Field, while in Sacramento the search goes on for a whale that will invest both in MLS and the team. (MLS is a shared membership league, where owners invest in the league as a whole and receive operating rights to a market.) Here’s our monthly handicapping on what could happen in the next round of MLS expansion, focusing on the leading contenders—with plenty of caveats, of course.

Phoenix: 2-1 With a solid ownership group, a solid stadium plan, a USL track record and a desirable market, the Phoenix Rising bid should be enough to land a team. The sports-business scene in Phoenix is in flux, with the Suns, Diamondbacks and Coyotes all seeking new facilities.

Detroit: 3-1 When it was proposed by potential MLS owners to install a retractable roof at Ford Field with the Detroit Lions, Detroit instantly improved its chances of landing an expansion team. And while the process is a little more complicated than just changing the Ford Field roof—where there’s an open roof and potentially real grass there’s also the need for a more robust drainage system—the fact it’s even being brought up is good news for Detroit pro-soccer fans. And while there’s also a huge challenge in being a secondary tenant in an NFL stadium, it works in Atlanta with Arthur Blank owning both teams, and it could possibly work in Detroit with the Ford family involved with both teams.

Sacramento: 4-1 A heavy-hitting lead investor still needs to emerge. Sacramento Republic has been tremendously successful at the USL level, selling out every match, and with a new-stadium plan in place, would seem to have a leg up in the pursuit of an MLS team. But we’ve seen MLS be very patient in giving teams time to check off every item on the expansion checklist.

San Diego: 4-1 A fall referendum will ask voters to approve two development proposals for the SDCCU Stadium (formerly Qualcomm Stadium) site: one from the SoccerCity investment team and one from San Diego State University to redevelop the. Both could be winners for MLS fans. It’s no secret MLS officials like the San Diego market, both to balance the league’s geographic footprint and to take advantage of the vacuum left in the local sporting scene with the move of the NFL’s Chargers. There’s still a strong ownership group in place with the SoccerCity team, but San Diego State may end up prevailing in the referendum, which doesn’t preclude MLS. SDSU is very interested in having MLS as part of the development. In fact, Populous’ conceptual design of the new SDSU stadium was specifically designed to incorporate MLS and soccer.

San Antonio: 9-1 Again, a huge caveat here: these odds assume the Columbus Crew will not move to Austin. If Anthony Precourt does end up with a new Austin stadium, then the odds of San Antonio landing a new team will be significantly higher. There’s just no way MLS will go for teams in both San Antonio and Austin. Which is a shame for San Antonio soccer fans. The San Antonio bid features a solid ownership in the form of the San Antonio Spurs and a city government supporting MLS soccer.

Las Vegas: 12-1 Brent Lashbrook has proven Sin City is a viable MLS market by drawing fans to a downtown ballpark not very optimized for pro soccer. Can that USL success be extended to MLS? It would seem a discussion of pro soccer in downtown Las Vegas is worthy of consideration, but it would basically require a new stadium; we don’t see Cashman Field being capable of being upgraded to MLS standards.

Charlotte: 15-1 New Charlotte Panthers owner David Tepper has talked favorably about adding MLS to the mix, but always in the context of a new stadium. There’s no doubt a vocal chunk of the Charlotte business community has more than a little envy of what Arthur Blank accomplished in Atlanta with Mercedes-Benz Stadium. And Tepper is right to discuss whether Bank of America Stadium fits with his vision of the Panthers. But a trial balloon does not equal a commitment to spending a billion dollars on a new stadium and MLS team.

Louisville: 20-1 With state funding approved for a new Louisville USL stadium and a solid track record with USL, local soccer enthusiasts say their next target is MLS. A worthy target. But the ownership group and stadium will need to be upgraded to attract the attention of MLS, and with more worthy contenders ahead in line, it would be a challenge to land a team in the next expansion round. Down the line? Yes.

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