After almost two years of operations impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re on the cusp of a season approaching normalcy, with new and renovated stadiums opening in MLS, realignments in Division II and III men’s pro soccer and the continued growth in women’s soccer. Here are the four stories we’ll be following closely this year.
1.) New and renovated stadiums. Another season, another new MLS stadium opening, with Nashville SC Stadium on tap for a May 1 launch. It’s billed as the largest soccer-specific stadium in the United States and Canada, with a seating capacity of 30,000 seats. The stadium will feature a 360-degree canopy, 65-foot-wide shared concourse, safe standing supporter’s section and 150 feet of distance between the last row to the touchline. (You can see the construction status in the photo at the top of this page.) With Charlotte FC entering MLS this year, we’ll see the debut of Bank of America Stadium as a league venue. The home of the NFL’s Charlotte Panthers has been renovated to host MLS soccer as well as pro football, so look for some attempts at new single-game attendance records. Also opening up later this year for public events in anticipation of a 2023 MLS season debut: the new St. Louis City SC stadium.
2.) MLS expansion. There seems to be little mystery about Las Vegas landing the 30th MLS team; the only mystery seems to be the timing of the announcement.
3.) Growth in the women’s pro game. Though there are still a few franchise issues, including the current ownership spat regarding the Washington Spirit, NWSL continues to grow with the addition of San Diego Wave and Angel City FC in 2022. We’ll also see OL Reign move back to Seattle from Tacoma, and if all goes well we could see a Salt Lake City team return to the league lineup down the line. We’ll also see work on a significant expansion of the women’s pro game come 2023, when the USL Super League launches as a Division II circuit.
4.) Division II and III realignment. We’ll see the debut of MLS Next Pro, the new Division III circuit, in 2022, featuring 21 clubs in 2022 and adding at least eight teams in 2023, representing a serious realignment in professional soccer. Out of those 21 clubs, 10 are former members of USL Championship and USL League One. It will be interesting to see cities and counties decide between the two minor leagues, as both woo the same markets for expansion. For example: MLS Next Pro and USL officials pitched Spokane officials on a lease for a new downtown stadium. City officials went with USL: the big differences between the bids included $2 million upfront for stadium construction and the ability to deliver a USL Super League team.
Screencap of Nashville SC Stadium construction from Jan. 7 courtesy Nashville SC.