Future MLS Expansion: December 2021

As 2021 nears an end, MLS is seemingly closer to expansion than it’s been since March 2020. But there’s little mystery this time around, with MLS Commissioner Don Garber expressing a clear preference for Las Vegas.

Not a surprise: the last time we estimated MLS expansion odds in September 2021, we tagged Las Vegas as a prohibitive favorite at 1-2 odds. With Golden Knights owner Bill Foley bowing out of the competition to land an MLS team, the front runners to land MLS’s 30th team are now Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris. The pair co-own the Premier League’s Aston Villa, while Edens co-owns the NBA champions Milwaukee Bucks with Marc Lasry. Edens and Sawiris have been successful with the first-division Aston Villa team, and their vision include the MLS team working with Aston Villa. 

For Edens, the play would be a real-estate play as much as a soccer play. Edens’ Fortress Investment Group owns Brightline, which is planning a high-speed light-rail line between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, terminating at Las Vegas Boulevard and Warm Springs Road. Brightline controls the 110-acre site, considered prime real estate at the south end of the Strip, a few miles from McCarren and within easy access of Interstate 15 and the 215 Beltway. It was once coveted by the Oakland A’s as a ballpark site, but the plan now is for Brightline to use it for development as well as a 65,000-square-foot terminal—as well as potentially a new soccer stadium.

MLS currently stands at 27 teams, with Charlotte and St. Louis joining the league in 2022 and 2023, respectively. Adding Las Vegas in 2024 would give Edens and crew time to put together a development and stadium deal; Allegiant Stadium is being discussed as a stop-gap venue option should a new stadium not being completed by then. From the Las Vegas Review-Journal:

“Wes is a guy that we all have longstanding relationships with by the way he had looked at other MLS clubs over the years,” Garber said. “We’ll continue those discussions and continue to try to get something done with our 30th team … within the next 10 months.”

The success that the NHL’s Golden Knights and NFL’s Raiders have had in Las Vegas is not being overlooked, Garber said.

“What has been done with the Knights, what Bill (Foley) has done has been remarkable. I think it’s one of the great expansion team launches in the history of professional sports,” Garber said.

“What Mark (Davis) has done with the Raiders, both on the field and what he’s done with Allegiant (Stadium), is just spectacular. We’re very bullish about the market. We’ll continue to plow forward.”

Now, having said that, Garber added there are still discussions with other cities about MLS expansion, singling out San Diego and Phoenix, with Sacramento lurking deeper in the wings. The feeling from many in the sport is that MLS will eventually reach 32 teams as long as there’s investor interest in the sport. So, assuming that Las Vegas is a lock for the 30th slot and that two more slots will be open before the end of the decade (yes, it feels a little odd to be taking such a long-term approach!), here’s a look at the current state of affairs in future MLS expansion.

San Diego 3-1 Though the plan to redevelop the 48-acre Pechanga Arena site has been plagued by plenty of regulatory and legal challenges—the most recent court setback detailed on our sister site, Arena Digest—the expectation is that the project will eventually move forward, with five bidders submitting plans. The one of most interest here is from the Midway Village+ group, made up of housing developer Toll Brothers, Newport Beach-based Revitate (a private equity firm with ties to the Sacramento Kings and Golden 1 Center), David Malmuth Development and affordable-housing specialist Bridge Housing. Besides a new arena, a hotel and the requisite affordable housing, the group is proposing a 12,000-capacity pop-up stadium to be used temporarily while a new 20,000-capacity stadium is built. (That site rendering is at the top of this page.) The pop-up is planned as home to USL Championship’s San Diego Loyal, but you don’t build a 20,000-capacity stadium for USL.

Phoenix 3-1 You’re got to give the Phoenix Rising owners plenty of props for their patience, quietly building a soccer infrastructure in the Valley of the Sun (the latest: spending millions on a new youth soccer facility). It’s regarded as potentially a good soccer market with a solid ownership. So why does Phoenix never rank higher in expansion discussions? The unsettled nature of the Phoenix sports market, we’re guessing. The Arizona Diamondbacks have been quietly studying whether to build a new ballpark or commit to Chase Field (our guess: commit to Chase Field) and the Arizona Coyotes are pursuing a new Tempe arena/development

Indianapolis 20-1 Indy Eleven had promised to unveil Eleven Park stadium plans this year, but after the Indiana General Assembly loosened requirement to have a stadium plan in place to qualify for state funding, deadlines for a site announcement were pushed back.

Sacramento 40-1 Ron Burkle left behind city support of a new stadium and some minor investors when he withdrew his MLS bid. The issue has been finding a new deep-pocketed lead investor, and league officials admit this has been a huge battle; as of now, that effort has come up short.

Louisville 50-1 With Louisville City FC being one of the bright spots in USL Championship this season and Racing Louisville off to a solid start in NWSL, there will surely be calls for MLS to look at Louisville. With Lynn Family Stadium reportedly built to be expandable to MLS specs (it currently seats 11,600), the groundwork is there, and Louisville has shown appetite for big-league sports in recent years.

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