Major League Soccer has announced it plans to expand to 30 teams, as commissioner Don Garber revealed the decision was made at the Board of Governors meeting in LA on Thursday.
Previously the limit to expansion was set at 28 teams, but with an expansion fee for teams 28 and 29 set at around $200 million, and team 30 probably beyond that figure, MLS owners and directors aren’t going to push away the dozen or so cities lining up to pay that kind of cash to get a franchise.
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Now, how big MLS should grow to is a debate for another day, and definitely one worth having when it comes to promotion and relegation by creating an MLS 1 and MLS 2, or how the realignment of conferences will impact things.
But below we focus solely on which cities are in line to get the next three expansion spots and rank them accordingly.
Teams 28 and 29 – Sacramento and St. Louis
I won’t go quite as far to say I’ll eat my hat if Sacramento and St. Louis aren’t teams 28 and 29, but I probably should… With both Sacramento and St. Louis steaming ahead with their MLS bids, it is no surprise that news from the governors meeting states that both cities will be invited to give formal presentations on their bids in the coming months. Both could be awarded expansion franchises by early August and begin play in 2021 or 2022.
Sacramento Republic FC has been ready for some time with their stadium plan sealed, and the final piece of the jigsaw is now in place as billionaire Ron Burkle (Pittsburgh Penguins owner) and his business partner Matt Alvarez will join the ownership group as and when they are awarded a franchise. St. Louis has always been a soccer hotbed, and with the Taylor Family who own the Enterprise group now leading the ownership group, STL has finally sorted its downtown stadium plan out. With no NFL team in town there is a gap in the market, and St. Louis would link up the Midwest franchises very nicely geographically.
What about the 30th team? That race is a lot more complicated than Sacramento and St. Louis in pole position for teams 28 and 29.
Over the past few years we have ranked the wider expansion race many times, and the main thing to remember is this: things change very quickly as ownership groups get fed up, and MLS’ insistence that new expansion franchises must have soccer-specific stadiums (barring a few exceptions, ahem, New York City FC, Atlanta United…) creates problems for potential owners.
Here’s a look at the cities which submitted bids back in February 2017 to MLS (and one other) and how their chances stack up in the current climate:
Phoenix – They are looking like a very decent bet now, as crowds have been impressive in the past thee seasons, Didier Drogba has stuck around and they are financed by several wealthy investors, including Alex Zheng who owns Nice in Ligue 1. With a bit of a geographic gap between California and the Midwest for MLS teams, having a team in Phoenix links things up nicely too. If they arrive in MLS they will also build a soccer-specific stadium on the site of their current home. There’s more than a 50-50 chance they could be team 30.
Detroit – This bid was gathering plenty of momentum in the league office and was one of the four finalists selected in the previous round of expansion with the other three including Cincinnati and Nashville both awarded teams, and Sacramento on the verge. But after plans for a downtown soccer-specific stadium stalled and the Ford Family got involved, things went south quickly. The plan to have a Detroit MLS team play in the NFL stadium of the Lions wouldn’t be dissimilar to what Atlanta United has done, but is this viable in Detroit? If MLS thinks it is possible to get large crowds for every home game, it would take very little from an organizational standpoint to award Detroit a team. There’s more than 50-50 chance they could be team 30.
Raleigh/Durham – North Carolina FC are one of the most stable lower-league teams in North America and owner Steve Malik is an influential figure in American soccer circles. Given the freakishly strong college programs in the area and Raleigh/Durham a hugely popular city for young families to move to, there is plenty of potential here. Getting just 4-5,000 average crowds in the USL isn’t too impressive though, and unless that changes, it will put the league off. Possible, but a long shot.
Tampa Bay/St Petersburg – The Tampa Bay Rowdies have a loyal fanbase and the plans to redevelop Al Lang Stadium are impressive. With Orlando City already in MLS, there is a chance for a natural rivalry to grow, and with Miami arriving too, there’s a chance for Florida to become a real selling point for MLS. However, three MLS teams in FLA and Atlanta on the scene may be a little too much. If MLS decides it isn’t, Tampa could join pretty quickly, and despite some pointing to the Mutiny being shut down in 2000 as a warning sign, that hasn’t stopped MLS returning to Miami for a second go at things. Possible, but a long shot.
Charlotte – No public financing or funding for a stadium plan sort of scuppered this bid early on, although the new ownership group of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers are said to be in talks with MLS about rejuvenating the bid as billionaire David Tepper has made it a priority. Having both Charlotte and Raleigh/Durham bid for teams was a bit of a nightmare, as it weakened both bids. These areas are huge soccer hotbeds, but as things stand it would be a bit of a shock if either got a franchise. An outsider.
San Diego – If they could ever agree on a stadium plan, San Diego would be a great place for an MLS franchise given its proximity to LA and a chance to build local rivalries. With the Chargers leaving town, like St. Louis there’s an opportunity to fill a sporting void. But with the Soccer City plan having plenty of big names but not passed by local government, this bid doesn’t seem to be happening any time soon. Things can change quickly though. An outsider.
Las Vegas – Garber has mentioned Vegas as a potential city a few times, even though they didn’t hand in a bid to MLS for an expansion franchise back in 2017. Seeing how well the NHL’s Golden Knights have done in Vegas will be intriguing, as MLS has long looked at the NHL as a shinning light in terms of how teams are added to the league. Like Phoenix, a team in Vegas will fill the void between the West Coast and Midwest, but there is a lot to sort out and the USL’s Las Vegas Lights complicate things a little. They have been a solid addition to the lower-tiers with very good crowds, but having a strong, dedicated ownership group is what’s needed to kick on the Vegas bid. An outsider
Indianapolis – A steady soccer market for years, Indianapolis have had the Indy Eleven and crowds are pretty decent. However, not having an ownership group with deep pockets is pretty much against what MLS wants for expansion teams and unless that changes, the chances of having a team in Indiana’s biggest city remain slim to none. Add to that the success of FC Cincinnati and the Columbus Crew sticking around, plus St. Louis looking like a favorite, and the Midwest market is a little congested right now. An outsider.
San Antonio – With Austin being awarded a franchise, many will ask if there’s a need for four MLS teams in Texas. Of course, San Antonio has seen some very impressive crowds in the lower tier and San Antonio FC’s Toyota Field could be expanded rather easily, but the fact San Antonio was far from happy with Anthony Precourt being able to relocate a franchise to Austin doesn’t help its chances. An outsider.