Handicapping the Next MLS Expansion Round: December 2019 Edition

Las Vegas MLS stadium rendering Cashman Field

With Charlotte scheduled to land the circuit’s 30th franchise, MLS expansion talks may take a break in the beginning of 2020—though Las Vegas and Phoenix are reportedly still in serious contention should the league expand to 32 teams.

A Charlotte MLS expansion announcement is expected Tuesday at an event with Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper, city officials, and other guests. The Charlotte MLS expansion plan came about quickly: a previous attempt by Speedway Motorsports president and CEO Marcus Smith to land a team fell flat in 2017, but when Tepper became involved in an MLS expansion bid last summer, Charlotte rapidly rose to the top of the list.

Currently MLS is at 24 teams with the addition of FC Cincinnati for 2019. Five more expansion teams have been announced—Nashville SC (2020), Inter Miami CF (2020), Austin FC (2021), St. Louis (2022) and Sacramento (2022)—and it remains to be seen when Charlotte begins play, though we expect an announcement tomorrow. (In theory, rapid changes to Bank of America Stadium could allow the team to launch in 2021.)

When MLS Commissioner Don Garber announced that Charlotte was the leading contender to land the 30th expansion market, he specifically mentioned that Las Vegas and Phoenix remain in contention to land MLS teams—which will certainly fuel talk that the ultimate goal for MLS expansion is 32 teams, not 30. We’re ranked both markets highly in past evaluations of potential MLS expansion—rankings basically confirmed by Garber.

But we don’t expect any announcements about future expansion until February 2020, when talks between the city of Las Vegas and a developer over the future of the Cashman Field site are set to end. The Renaissance Companies had proposed a master development plan for the 62-acre site on the edge of downtown Las Vegas, anchored by a 25,000-capacity retractable-roof MLS stadium. The stadium development would be led by billionaire hedge-fund manager Seth Klarman of the Boston-based Baupost Group, who has an option to buy the USL Championship Las Vegas Lights team. Cashman Field is the former home to Minor League Baseball in Las Vegas; the city-owned site is just north of downtown Las Vegas. Because of its proximity to downtown and freeway access, the site is seen as an attractive redevelopment site by city officials. The development talks were set to end December 1 but were extended to February 5, 2020.

It’s pretty apparent there is demand for expansion—and a move toward a 32-team league would make some sense. So whichever groups failing to land the next slot will immediately be the frontrunners 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. Here are our odds covering the remaining contenders for an MLS expansion team.

Las Vegas: 1-2 With two heavyweight ownership groups emerging, Vegas is in a strong position to land a team. We’ve already noted the status of negotiations over a proposed MLS stadium at the Cashman Field site. 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. But there are multiple options for an MLS Vegas expansion team: Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley is leading an effort for an MLS expansion franchise at the upcoming Allegiant Stadiumscheduled to become home of the relocating Oakland Raiders in 2020—putting another Sin City pitch in the mix.

Phoenix: 1-1 With a solid ownership group that includes star Didier Drogba, Advantage Sports Union CEO Alex Zheng and Fortuitous Partners’ Brett Johnson, 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? We will see.

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: 40-1 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: With Charlotte landing a team, it’s hard to see Raleigh landing one, too.

San Diego: 45-1 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. But San Diego State’s pitch to build a new stadium, part of a proposed redevelopment of the SDCCU Stadium site, is far from finalized.

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.

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