MLS confirms “advanced discussions” with Minnesota United; will evalute expansion past 24 teams

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Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber confirmed on Monday that league executives are in “advanced discussions” with North American Soccer League (NASL) club Minnesota United regarding the second-division club’s bid for an MLS expansion franchise, as outlined in a report by SI‘s Brian Straus last week.

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To recap, Minnesota United’s bid is highlighted by a proposed soccer-specific stadium in downtown Minneapolis and, which Straus reported last week is accompanied by a written Letter of Intent from MLS to the city of Minneapolis. The United group has been chosen by MLS over a second Minnesota bid, from the NFL’s Vikings, which would have involved the NFL team’s under-construction, 65,000-seat domed stadium.

From MLSsoccer.com:

The league confirmed on Monday afternoon that it is in “advanced discussions” with representatives from Minnesota United FC, though the final decision is not ready to be announced.

“We are in advanced discussions with Bill McGuire and his partners in Minnesota to bring a Major League Soccer expansion club to the Twin Cities and are particularly excited about their plans for a new soccer-specific stadium that will serve as the club’s home,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said in a statement released by the club. “We remain on track to announce the next MLS expansion market in the next 30-45 days, though no specific date for an announcement has been set.”

I’ll take a soccer-specific stadium over a cavernous NFL dome any day of the week, as well as the existing soccer infrastructure and fanbase. Kudos to MLS choosing the better proposal from the Twin Cities.

Expansion beyond 24 teams

However, on Monday, Garber stated that the league will evaluate its expansion plans.

“Over the course of 2015, we plan to evaluate potential expansion beyond 24 clubs,” he said.

First things first, MLS never planned to stop at 24 teams. “24 teams by 2020” was the stated goal — one they’ll reach with ease — but rarely in the context of “once we reach 24, we stop.”

What “24 teams by 2020” did do, however, was put the fear of being left out into the hearts of every prospective MLS market’s ownership group, local government and community of fans. MLS essentially said to all of those groups, “We’re going to admit four more of you (five, once Chivas USA disappeared) into our super-exclusive club, and we’re going to take the first five who offer 1) the most money, 2) a soccer-specific stadium the quickest, and 3) guarantee the highest number of season tickets to be sold.”

In other words, supply and demand.

It’s how the league managed to get a $110-million expansion fee out of a second Los Angeles franchise and $70 million from each Orlando and Atlanta. One would presume they’ll get a similar fee to that of Orlando and Atlanta out of Minnesota.

Who is team No. 25, and where do they stop?

Sacramento Republic, unless they’re team No. 24 ahead of David Beckham’s Miami project. As I speculated last week, Sacramento would enter MLS right alongside Minnesota, if not for Beckham having a temporary (permanent?) hold on an expansion bid.

It’s extremely obvious MLS will not have a balanced schedule with a single-table standings anytime soon, if ever. The North American continent is simply too large for a Florida-based team to fly to the Pacific Northwest for three games and California for four, not to mention the rest of the league’s cities.

Three divisions — preferably of 10 teams each — seems to make the most sense and/or be inevitable. With the correct teams joining the league in the future (more on that in a minute), MLS could easily fill three, 10-team West, Central and East divisions. Anything beyond 30 teams, and you’re probably granting undeserved franchises for the sake of filling out numbers.

Team 26? 27? 28? 29? 30?

Once we move past Sacramento and Miami, future MLS expansion speculation gets really fun. We can be practical and say, “These cities are most likely to attempt/achieve a move to MLS,” or have a little more fun and frame the conversation as, “In a perfect world, these would be the next [x-number] of teams in MLS.”

In my own perfect world, the following cities would be the next six awarded an MLS franchise, in the event suitable ownership groups could be found for each: St. Louis, San Antonio, Las Vegas, Indianapolis and a city in North Carolina, bringing the total to 30 teams.

St. Louis has the fifth-largest metro population without an MLS team (at this point of our projections) and could soon be without an NFL team, leaving the city with only MLB and the NHL. Adding St. Louis also gives MLS a solid three-way rivalry — something the league loves and desires — along with fellow Midwestern cities Kansas City and Chicago.

San Antonio and Indianapolis have done very well during their clubs’ short existences (2010 and 2013, respectively) in the NASL. Again, San Antonio makes a third Texas team, and we’re suddenly paying attention to the Texas Cup the same way we do the Cascadia Cup.

“A North Carolina city,” meaning somewhere near Raleigh, a booming soccer hotbed with three major Division I colleges — Duke, North Carolina and NC State — within 30 miles of one another. Currently, the city of Cary — positioned amongst all four universities — has an NASL team of its own.

Las Vegas is the biggest question of the above five teams. There’s always the issue of mixing sports and gambling, but let’s say the NBA leads the way in embracing sports betting, and it’s something MLS is comfortable with eight or 10 years from now, the biggest Vegas hurdle is cleared. They’ve made approaches before.

Also garnering consideration should MLS expand beyond 30 teams: San Diego, Austin, Nashville and Phoenix.