MLS franchise ‘belongs in Charlotte’

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Charlotte, North Carolina is not one of the cities which has been high up the list for potential expansion franchises in Major League Soccer, but it should be.

That’s according to the owner of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, David Tepper, who has revealed he is in “ongoing discussions” with MLS about bringing a team to Charlotte, NC.

The largest city in North Carolina, Charlotte already has a soccer team, the Independence which has been in the USL since 2014. And a previous bid for an MLS franchise, which was submitted to the league almost two years ago, was led by Marcus Smith, president and CEO of Speedway Motorsports.

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Tepper, a hedge-fund manager worth $11 billion, revealed to journalists that the president of the NFL’s Panthers, Tom Glick, (who was formerly involved at Derby County, Manchester City and with New York City FC) is pushing the cause for a team.

“We are having ongoing discussions with Major League Soccer,” Tepper said. “We’re talking about when they’ll take extra teams and when the time comes, we’ll be [ready]. We’re very much studying, very much focused on it. I personally believe that’s something that belongs in Charlotte.”

Charlotte has seen some big crowds for friendly games between big European clubs at the Bank of America Stadium in recent years, but can any North American city truly say MLS belongs there?

We’ve seen some big cities have teams and be far from successful in the past (Miami, Tampa and LA’s Chivas USA to name a few), but there’s no doubting the potential in Charlotte, especially with a billionaire NFL owner ready to back the team.

That scenario has worked out pretty well for Atlanta United under Arthur Blank…

But this all gets quite tricky when you start to break down the race for MLS expansion franchises. With Commissioner Don Garber previously stating that 28 teams is the magic number, that means there is only one spot remaining. And there are plenty of cities in the U.S. scrambling for that franchise.

FC Cincinnati are joining MLS for the 2019 season, while David Beckham’s Club Internacional de Futbol Miami and Nashville SC are slated to arrived for the 2020 season and Austin FC have been awarded a franchise for 2021.

That takes the total number of MLS teams to 27.

Given the fact that both Sacramento and St. Louis have put strong ownership groups together after some struggles and Detroit was previously named as aa finalist in the expansion race, all three are believed to be pushing hard for an expansion franchise.

MLS could have a real problem on its hands, although a $150 million expansion franchise fee would help with any teething issues it has.

Remember, MLS said Cincinnati, Nashville, Detroit and Sacramento were its four finalists for two expansion franchises back in November 2017. Cincinnati and Nashville have now been awarded teams, so Detroit and Sacramento are seemingly next up. Since then the league have mentioned strong talks in San Diego and St. Louis, and Las Vegas and Phoenix have also been mentioned in the conversation.

This is getting a little out of hand.

Expanding too quickly could be dangerous for the overall quality in MLS, but at this point why not expand to 32 teams?

When a list of 12 potential expansion cities was submitted in February 2017 it consisted of: Cincinnati, Sacramento, Nashville, Detroit, St. Louis, Charlotte, Raleigh/Durham, San Antonio, Tampa Bay/St Petersburg, San Diego, Phoenix and Indianapolis.

A lot has changed over the past two years with different ownership groups dipping in and out of the conversation, and plans for soccer-specific stadiums getting knocked back with certain bids.

Right now, if I had to select five cities that would get the next expansion franchises to make it to 32 teams, it would be Sacramento, St. Louis, Detroit, Charlotte and Phoenix. Geographically they all link up with other MLS markets well and in terms of Sacramento and STL, they have done plenty of work to get stadium deals and ownership groups in place.

There are no doubt intriguing times ahead in the MLS expansion race, as the success of recent expansion clubs Atlanta United and Los Angeles FC have set the benchmark for how the league should grow.

MLS should not rush this process, and it’s main focus should be on improving some of its current franchises before expanding beyond 27. When it does decide to expand again, the frontrunners are clear for all to see.