Handicapping the Next MLS Expansion Round: August 2019 Edition

Sacramento Republic FC stadium rendering April 2019

With today’s announcement that St. Louis will be awarded an MLS expansion franchise for the 2022 season, attention will quickly turn on contenders for the next two league slots.

Currently MLS is at 24 teams with the addition of FC Cincinnati for 2019. Four more expansion teams have been announced—Nashville SC, Inter Miami CF and Austin FC—and St. Louis chosen over Sacramento for the 28th team. So that leaves two slots as MLS expansion marches toward at least a 30-team circuit.

With MLS Commissioner Don Garber confirming that serious talks are underway to add Sacramento for team #29, there are two issues to address. First, the speculation will center on the leading contenders for team #30. Second, there will surely be talk about whether the league should have a goal of 32 teams, not 30; with so many cities and ownership group expressing serious interest in an MLS expansion franchise, many will want to strike while the iron is hot.

Here, we’ll focus on team #30, assuming that Sacramento is a lock for the #29 slot. And MLS officials will have plenty of choices when looking at contenders for that #30 slot. But don’t look for any quick decision on that front.

After the next two expansion teams are announced, Garber says there will be a break before moving ahead with #30. That gives Las Vegas a chance to work out a plan, and it gives cities still formulating new-stadium plans time to work out a deal. That also gives David Tepper time to push a new-stadium plan in Charlotte, with MLS as a selling point; it would also give groups in Raleigh and Phoenix time to develop and finalize new stadium plans.

It’s pretty apparent there is demand for expansion—and a move toward a 32-team league would make some sense. So whichever group failing to land the next two slots will immediately be the frontrunner for the next round.

That’s why there are plenty of contenders for a future MLS expansion team, as several solid ownership groups have been biding their time in the wings, waiting for the league to move forward.

Sacramento: 1-4 Ron Burkle’s decision to invest in MLS, Sacramento Republic FC and a new downtown stadium is still the compelling argument for the city landing the #29 MLS team. Sacramento has been mentioned as a leading MLS expansion market in recent years, thanks to a positive local economy, USL success and a new downtown stadium plan in place. The city is now committed to a stadium financing plan, so the final piece of the puzzle is in place. MLS has been patient in waiting for Sacramento to develop a strong bid; the patience should be rewarded.

Las Vegas: 1-1 With two heavyweight ownership groups emerging, Vegas is in a strong position to land a team. And the uncertainly surrounding the status of two competing bids will be a prime reason why the league is likely to take its time awarding the #30 team. The Las Vegas City Council is working on a plan for a new stadium at the 62-acre Cashman Field site, negotiating with Renaissance Companies to develop a master plan for a mixed-use development. This sort of large-scale investment anchored by a soccer stadium is particularly loved by MLS officials and owners; it’s the model used for Allianz Field and a proposed Miami facility. The effort is headed by billionaire hedge-fund manager Seth Klarman of the Boston-based Baupost Group and would involve the sale of USL Championship’s Las Vegas Lights. Klarman is not alone: Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley is leading an effort for an MLS expansion franchise at the upcoming Allegiant Stadium, scheduled to become home of the relocating Oakland Raiders (NFL) in 2020. It’s not clear how MLS would react to this arrangement, as generally the league is not thrilled with its teams being a secondary tenant in an NFL facility.

Charlotte: 1-1 Carolina Panthers (NFL) owner David Tepper and his team president, Tom Glick, are now explicitly advocating for an MLS team. The Charlotte effort started out very quietly, punctuated by market research and fan surveys, and is now a core part of an argument from Tepper for a new retractable-roof stadium a la Atlanta. Tepper is taking a long-term approach to the facility issue, saying he’d like to see a Bank of America Stadium replacement in the next decade.

Phoenix: 3-1 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 Diamondbacks and Coyotes seeking new facilities. Is this a good thing for MLS? If Phoenix doesn’t land a team this year, you can bet the group will be a strong contender when the next round of expansion opens.

Indianapolis: 5-1 This may be the stealth candidate that ends up surprising a lot of people, as Indy Eleven owners snare some key public support for an Eleven Park development that would include a 20,000-seat stadium. Indy Eleven owners are thinking big—and if one thing Anthony Precourt’s pursuit of Austin teaches us, fortune favors the bold in MLS expansion. Indy Eleven has quietly checked off many items on an MLS expansion checklist, including the bolstering of the team’s investment group.

Raleigh: 8-1 Coming up with a stadium plan is one thing; convincing Wake County to fund it is another. This is a bid that will depend on public funding of a new development built around a stadium, but the plan is flexible enough that a USL stadium will do. And while the North Carolina FC ownership group will need to bring in some big-buck investors to buy into the league and fund the rest of the project, landing this money would be a good start to the proceedings. One big roadblock: If Charlotte lands a team, it’s hard to see Raleigh landing one, too.

San Diego: 25-1 With a new San Diego State University stadium in the planning stages, officials there have reached out to MLS about adding a team. MLS officials have spoken favorably of San Diego as a league market in the past, and while MLS officials don’t like to see their teams as a secondary tenant, the attractiveness of the market may be too tempting to ignore.

Louisville: 100-1 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.

Detroit: 500-1 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.

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