“Come one, come all. Welcome to the Major League Soccer lottery!”
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That’s what it feels like as Jan. 31 was the deadline for cities hoping to secure an MLS franchise in the next round of expansion with the expansion fee reported to be over $150 million for each team.
12 cities from across the U.S. have now put in their formal application, with the league office confirming on Tuesday that the following cities have all submitted their bids.
- Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg
- San Diego
- St. Louis
- San Antonio
Now, the waiting game begins.
With MLS growing to 22 teams for the upcoming 2017 season with the addition of Atlanta United and Minnesota United, LAFC will arrive in 2018 to take the number of teams to 23. David Beckham’s team in Miami is currently on hold as they continue their search for a stadium site which puts their status as team number 24 in some doubt.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber has stated his goal of adding four more teams in the coming years to expand the league to 28, but more specifically two more teams will be added for the 2020 season to take the league to 26 teams. The decision on who those two expansion franchises will be will be made midway through 2017 and will come from these 12 candidates who have submitted applications.
With the 12 cities formally submitting their bids, who seems nailed on for the next round of expansion to become MLS’ 25th and 26th franchises?
St. Louis appears to be at the top of the list with their plans to house an impressive stadium downtown from ownership group SC STL which is headed by Paul Edgerley who is part owner of the NBA’s Boston Celtics. Considering the huge success of club friendlies and U.S. national team games in STL in recent years, plus the relocation of the NFL’s Rams to LA, their ownership group is extremely confident of getting the deal done.
Another Midwest city is also near the top of the list, with second-year team FC Cincinnati showing there is a real hunger for the sport in the southern Ohio city. Average crowds of over 17,500 in the third-tier USL smashed all records in their first-ever season as a franchise in 2016. Surely they’re right at the top but they could come in the second wave of expansion.
The impressive ownership group behind USL side Sacramento Republic FC has also seemed highly likely to get a franchise with investors of the Sacramento Kings and San Francisco 49ers on board. However, there is some confusion around the MLS bid for Sacramento with rumors suggesting it does not involve the Republic and instead a separate bid by a group of investors led by Kevin Nagle and including Hewlett Packard’s Meg Whitman and her husband Dr. Griff Harsh. Is Sacramento’s bid in jeopardy? Still, Garber is adamant Sacramento will have a team in MLS by the time it has 28 franchises.
San Diego also appears to be favored by Garber as he collected their bid in a ceremony on Monday, the day after the city hosted the USMNT’s friendly against Serbia. With Landon Donovan, Stu Holden and other big names in the U.S. soccer community on board, San Diego’s location next to the Mexican border and soccer mad Tijuana is also an intriguing opportunity. It may have to wait for the next window of expansion but there’s no doubting the appetite for a team, especially after the NFL moved the Chargers to LA.
Plenty of other intriguing sites also stick out for the expansion committee with Detroit and San Antonio showing strong fanbases for lower-tier teams in recent years, while the likes of Tampa Bay, Phoenix and Indianapolis also have strong bids in place.
Making the decision about all of this, Garber’s MLS’ expansion committee is made up of New England Revolution’s Jonathan Kraft, Orlando City’s Phil Rawlins, the Philadelphia Union’s Jay Sugarman, Chicago Fire’s Andrew Hauptman and Columbus Crew SC’s Anthony Precourt. These guys will be very busy in the months to come as MLS’ impressive growth continues.
One thing is for sure, the plan to expand to only 28 teams by 2026 could be scrapped because plenty of these cities have extremely strong bids to house an MLS franchise in the next few years.