By FRANCO PANIZO
If there was one main thing to take away from MLS commissioner Don Garber’s 2013 State of the League address, it is that the league currently has its expansion eyes fixed on the southeast.
Speaking to reporters and fans inside the Google offices in New York City, Garber once again reaffirmed the notion on Tuesday that MLS is currently hoping to add more teams to the southeast in an effort to enlarge the league’s national footprint. MLS recently announced that it would return to the south with the expansion unveiling of Orlando City SC, but one team is not enough to satisfy the league’s desire and that is why Miami and Atlanta are being looked at as serious contenders to land future clubs.
Garber stated that neither market was close to being officially announced by the league, but that progress was being made.
“We are in discussions with potential ownership groups in Miami and Atlanta, who will give us some great rivalries in the Sun Belt to match those that we have in the northeast, midwest and Pacific northwest,” said Garber, who earlier this year said three of four upcoming expansion teams were spoken for. “As I’ve said before, we hope to have 24 teams by the end of the decade. In order to do that we need to expand strategically and we’ve got a big chunk of the country that is not covered. That’s the southeast. We hope to be able to achieve that with Atlanta, with Orlando, and in Miami but a lot of work to do in Atlanta and Miami.”
Miami has been at the front of of expansion talk in recent weeks and months, with global icon and former player David Beckham touring the South Florida city on multiple occasions to check out potential stadium sites and speak with parties interested in joining his ownership group. It was reported last week that Beckham is interested in building a potential soccer-specific stadium in PortMiami, which is located in the downtown area of the city.
Garber revealed that he, too, has spent “a lot of time” in Miami recently, though he has done so quietly and discreetly in an effort to avoid media attention. Garber has spoken to local leaders in the city, but said that MLS will not do anything in the market that many observers view as tricky until a stadium plan is finalized.
“We’re making progress in Miami with David Beckham and his partners,” said Garber. “We are mindful of the challenges that we had in Miami when the league had the Miami Fusion, we’re mindful of the challenges that have existed in that market throughout soccer history. That being said, we look at what Relevent Sports and (RSE Ventures CEO) Matt Higgins and the guys at the (NFL’s) Dolphins have done with their international friendlies and, frankly, they’re largely successful, they’re doing a great job, and they’re proving that that market is changing.
“The Miami today, demographically, socially, politically, is very different from the Miami of 2002 when we folded the Miami Fusion. We believe Miami could work if we get the right stadium situation – we don’t have that yet – and if we’re able to get David and his potential partners to come together and create the kind of ownership group that would rival the ownership groups that we have, from a commitment perspective, in Major League Soccer. That is still to be seen.”
Garber discussed Miami at length, but refrained from touching on the subjects of if Beckham has a deadline by which he has to make an announcement by and if such a deadline could be extended.
As for Atlanta, Garber stated that MLS is keen on landing a club in the Georgia capital and that the league has “finalized” a stadium situation with Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank.
A new 65,000-seat stadium for the Falcons is expected to be opened in 2017 and Garber mentioned that a unique downsizing technology could be used in order to make room for an MLS club. Garber said MLS still needs to continue to work with Blank to see if a soccer project makes sense for the Home Depot co-founder, but is encouraged by their recent discussions and hopes to finalize something in the not-too-distant future.
“Atlanta, we are making progress with our discussions with Arthur Blank and the Atlanta Falcons,” said Garber. “Arthur’s been to a number of big events, very quietly. That’s kind of the way we like to do these things when we’re going through this process. Atlanta is a very changing market demographically. It’s a big market.
“We need to be in the southeast for all the reasons that I’ve mentioned and I think if we can continue to advance our discussions positively with Arthur and the Falcons, we hope to be able to get a situation finalized so that could potentially be our second team. Orlando being the first, maybe Atlanta or Miami would be the second or the third.”
If both Miami and Atlanta are to gain entrance into MLS as many are expecting, only one remaining expansion slot would be left to fill. Garber hinted that MLS may decide to continue to expand beyond the 24 teams they hope to have by the end of the decade, but said there are multiple cities currently in contention for that final spot and that an ownership group and downtown stadium would be key in securing it.
“That only leaves us a couple of extra spots if we are going to stop at 24 (teams) by 2020 and there are a number of other markets that we don’t have teams in that are large swaths of the country. The midwest is one of them, that’s why we’ve thrown Minneapolis out. There are a number of cities in Texas which are intriguing to us. San Antonio is one, Austin is another.
“St. Louis is a market that, again, that same group of soccer promoters have done a great job selling out big events. It’s the birthplace of soccer in America from what I’ve been told. I live in the same town as (St. Louis native and former baseball great) Yogi Berra. Whenever I run into him all he wants to do is talk about soccer and never about the Yankees. St. Louis, it could be another great market.”