Handicapping the Next MLS Expansion Round: January 2019 Edition

With a New Year comes a new Austin team and some new developments on the MLS expansion front, as 2019 promises to be an eventful time as Major League Soccer maps out its future. UPDATED!

Earlier this month Austin FC was officially announced as the latest MLS expansion team, set to begin in play in 2021 as the league’s 27th team. A year ago, it didn’t seem very likely that Austin would land an MLS franchise—indeed, there was no pro soccer in Texas’s capital at the time—but Anthony Precourt stuck to his vision of Austin MLS, swinging a new-stadium deal while working on the addition of new owners for his Columbus Crew. So long shots still happen in pro sports, even with hundreds of millions on the line.

We’re now in the end stages of the current MLS expansion round, where the league is slated to continue discussions on a 28th team now that the Austin/Columbus situation is resolved. Whether this is just a temporary pause or a real end to expansion remains to be seen. MLS has some issues to address in coming years, such as profitability and a streaming-media monetization strategy at a time when pro sports broadcasting is undergoing significant changes.

Still, there are plenty of contenders for that elusive 28th MLS expansion team, as several solid ownership groups have been biding their time in the wings, waiting for the league to move forward. We’ve seen some shifts in the expansion landscape, however, and right now it’s turning into a three-city race to land that elusive MLS expansion team.

Sacramento: 1-1 With Ron Burkle announced today as the new lead investor, Sacramento Republic FC may have broken the logjam to land the 28th MLS team. At one point Sacramento Republic was a leader to land an MLS expansion franchise, and with a new-stadium plan in place, would seem to have a leg up in the pursuit of an MLS team. (This post has been updated to reflect the Burkle announcement. Our original story alluded to an upcoming announcement about ownership in Sacramento and pegged Sacramento’s odds at 2-1 to land an MLS team.)

Phoenix: 2-1 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. Is this a good thing for MLS? We will see. It may come down to St. Louis vs. Phoenix vs. Sacramento, 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.

Indianapolis: 7-1 With the unveiling of an Eleven Park development that would include a 20,000-seat stadium, Indy Eleven owner Ersal Ozdemir put his MLS aspirations back in the limelight. While the site and specifics about the Eleven Park development still need to be finalized and announced, there’s no doubt Ozdemir is thinking big—and if one thing Precourt’s pursuit of Austin teaches us, fortune favors the bold in MLS expansion.

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 During a meeting with press last week, Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper talked about many things, including the need for a new practice facility and potential upgrades to Bank of America Stadium. What didn’t come up: any talk of a new stadium that could house NFL and MLS teams. Local MLS enthusiasts hold out hope that Tepper will commit a billion dollars or so to a new stadium and soccer team a la Atlanta’s Arthur Blank, but so far Tepper’s attention has been focused on the NFL. Timing may be the real issue here, particularly if MLS is looking to move forward in the first half of 2019.

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: 10,000-1 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. But with Austin set to join MLS in 2021, San Antonio’s MLS dreams are basically dead.

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