Handicapping the Next MLS Expansion Round: December 2018 Edition

Columbus Crew Stadium rendering 3

What began as a very long list of MLS expansion candidates is now down to a much shorter list of frontrunners, as we update our rankings on the next MLS expansion round for December 2018.

To say that the landscape has dramatically changed since the middle of 2018 is an understatement. Solid contenders like San Diego and Detroit have fallen to the wayside, at least for now. And a city that was not on anyone’s radar a year ago—Austin—will likely end up with one of the coveted expansion slots.

What’s changed since last month’s rankings: The Haslam and Edwards families are on the verge of closing a deal to keep the Crew in Columbus, reaching a deal to buy into the league (at the same price as an expansion team), while the city and state have been moving forward with a new-stadium financing plan. Given the progress that’s been made on the effort, we’ll more than likely see Austin join MLS as one of next two expansion teams (#27 and #28), with the timing to be determined. MLS played with 23 teams in 2018, with FC Cincinnati set to be the 24th MLS team in 2019, and Miami and Nashville joining in subsequent seasons.

That leaves one open expansion slot, if MLS sticks to its limit of 30 teams. (We expect there to be plenty of temptation to go at some point to 32: it’s a nice, round number when it comes to scheduling.) Even without Austin, there’s been an abundance of strong ownership candidates, both established and emerging, as the league continues to evaluate its options.

Austin: 1-10 Like many, we’ve not considered Austin to be a strong contender to land an expansion team in our past evaluations of contenders until this fall, when the Haslam and Edwards families emerged as Columbus owners. A new stadium financing plan is close to being finalized in Columbus, and the new ownership group agreed on an agreement to join MLS membership and obtain operating rights to Columbus, with Anthony Precourt retaining his league membership. With an experienced ownership group and a settled stadium plan, Austin is looking pretty good.

Phoenix: 1-1 With a solid ownership group, a solid stadium plan, a great USL track record and a desirable market, the Phoenix Rising bid should be enough to land a team. This bid has been flying under the radar, but it seems to meet everything on the MLS expansion checklist. The sports-business scene in Phoenix is in flux, with the Suns, Diamondbacks and Coyotes all seeking new facilities—to the point where the Suns are raising the possibility of leaving Phoenix should Talking Stick Resort Arena upgrades be voted down. Is this a good thing for MLS? We will see. It may come down to St. Louis vs. Phoenix, which could be a horrendously tough decision.

St. Louis: 2-1 Another solid ownership group with lots of local ties, another solid stadium plan. An MLS team would replace the NFL on the local sporting scene, and MLS management has spoken highly about the market in recent years. There’s still plenty of work to be done on the stadium plan, but initial approval from the St. Louis Board of Alderman gives the project a boost.

Sacramento: 10-1 A heavy-hitting lead investor still needs to emerge. Sacramento Republic has been tremendously successful at the USL level, 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.

Detroit: 10-1 The decision not to pursue a retractable roof for Ford Field was a big blow to Detroit’s MLS chances: it forces soccer to be an indoor sport in Motown. There are strong owners here, to be sure, but the facilities issue may be too much to overcome. 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 work in Detroit with the Ford family involved with both teams.

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.

San Diego: 30-1 Voters overwhelmingly voted for a plan to turn the SDCCU Stadium (formerly Qualcomm Stadium) site into a second San Diego State University campus, anchored by a new Aztecs football stadium. SDSU officials, however, are quick to point out they’re looking at a stadium design that could easily accommodate MLS (or USL, for that matter). Still, MLS officials had worked with FS Investors on the SoccerCity proposal, a traditional development plan that featured a soccer-first stadium. SDSU says they’re happy to discuss MLS as part of their planning, but so far there have been no talks—and if there are successful talks, San Diego once again becomes a frontrunner to land an MLS team. The road for San Diego MLS runs through SDSU.

Las Vegas: 35-1 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 require a new stadium; we don’t see Cashman Field being capable of being upgraded to MLS standards. And we don’t know if there’s the appetite in Las Vegas and Clark County for another new sporting facility unless it’s privately financed.

Louisville: 50-1 Local officials want MLS. But the local ownership group says they have no interest in spending the money needed for MLS. Also, the new Louisville USL stadium will need to be upgraded to attract the attention of MLS. 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.

San Antonio: 100-1 Simply put, 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.

Tampa Bay: 350-1 With Bill Edwards selling the Tampa Bay Rowdies to the Tampa Bay Rays and the Rays ownership saying they had little interest in pursuing an MLS team at this time, it appears highly unlikely we’ll see MLS at Al Lang Stadium any time soon. The Rays have their own stadium issues to worry about.

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