The race to become one of the next two MLS expansion teams is entering the stretch run. The league’s plan is to announce the next two additions to their fraternity in December and each of the dozen cities are doing their best to strengthen their case.
A couple cities have made some big news in their quests to join MLS. Nashville just announced a big stadium deal that will certainly catch the eye of the expansion committee.\
With the aim of keeping recency bias to one side, here’s a look at how each market is shaping up in their quest to bring top tier soccer to their town:
TIER 1: THE FRONTRUNNERS
Sacramento has been one of the strongest cases for MLS expansion since before the process began. They are the only market that could start building a stadium tomorrow if they wanted to. In fact, they began the pre-construction process over the summer at a stadium site that’s been picked out for years.
MLS loves its soccer specific stadiums when selecting expansion markets, but that isn’t all the California capital has going for it. They have a very successful team at the USL level that is poised to join the MLS party should the league come calling. Their fan base has been excited since Don Garber first visited the city about one year ago.
No, this market won’t make any more big news between now and December, but that’s because they’ve already made all the headlines they need.
Nashville made the most recent big headlines, but they marked off the biggest box on MLS’s expansion checklist. The city and prospective ownership group announced a plan to build a 27,500 seat soccer stadium at the Nashville Fairgrounds using public and private money.
This makes Nashville one of only two markets to have a solid stadium plan in place well before the December announcement. This really strengthens their case to join in the first round of expansion.
Nashville has a strong recent history of supporting high level soccer in the city. The USMNT played a Gold Cup match at Nissan Stadium over the summer in front of more than 47,000 fans. There is also a lot of excitement for Nashville SC, who join the USL next season.
TIER 2- ON THE CUSP
FC Cincinnati has driven the city’s expansion efforts for some time. They took the USL by storm by setting league attendance records from their very first game last year. They set U.S. Open Cup attendance records when they beat Columbus Crew SC and the Chicago Fire at Nippert Stadium before falling to the New York Red Bulls in the semi-finals.
They gave Garber and his crew a warm welcome last winter when they visited the city during the early stages of their expansion tour.
While there is tons of love for FC Cincinnati throughout the city, the one thing that holds them back from this first round of expansion is the lack of a stadium plan. Nippert Stadium has been a great venue for soccer, but MLS loves the bells and whistles of a new facility and FCC is having trouble finding a place to build one.
Detroit made some significant progress on their potential downtown stadium plan in recent weeks. Wayne County has favored Dan Gilbert’s and Tom Gores’s plan to take over the site of an unfinished county jail in exchange for building them a brand new, state of the art criminal justice complex. The trouble is, they probably won’t have the site secured in time for the December decision.
The county has given the competing bid for the jail site until December to come up with a counter offer that could shove Gilbert and Gores out in the cold.
Then there is the opinions of the small, but loud, supporters of Detroit City FC, the local NPSL club that has attracted as many as 7,500 fans to their amateur matches with their passionate supporters and ruckus atmosphere. Their numbers are relatively small, and don’t speak for the majority of soccer fans in the area, but their message is hard to ignore and it could present a challenge for the MLS expansion bid.
We will find out more about the Detroit bid this month, however, as Garber and the expansion team are planning on visiting the city in October.
TIER 3- DARK HORSES
Tampa is another market that hasn’t created much in the way of news recently. They have a stadium to play in and the improvements they need to make have been approved by the local government. Tampa Bay Rowdies owner Bill Edwards plans to spent a huge chunk of money to convert the minor league baseball stadium they currently play in into an 18,000 seat MLS quality venue.
There is a lot working against their efforts, however. David Beckham’s Miami expansion efforts and Orlando City SC’s successful opening could lead to MLS not wanting over over-congest the Florida market. Then there’s the fact that MLS failed in the city once before when the Tampa Bay Mutiny folded in the league’s early days.
Tampa has a solid plan for a place to play, but MLS may want to see a little more in order to award the city a team.
Also from the department of quiet is San Antonio. They have the backing of a very powerful ownership group in Spurs Sports and Entertainment. This group brings a wealth of sports management experience and financial clout that can help ensure a stable franchise should they be accepted.
They have a potential stadium plan that involves expanding the current home of the USL’s San Antonio FC. They would like to add 10,000 seats, some suites, and a roof to the 8,400 seat facility.
They still haven’t been granted an audience with Garber and the MLS brass, however. Until they can get a seat at that table, don’t expect much noise out of the heart of Texas.
TIER 4- STILL ALIVE
Phoenix Rising are having a strong season in the USL thanks to a quickly assembled stadium that could serve as the basis for a larger, MLS quality venue. Goldman Sachs appears to be funding the expansion project, but no public details are available.
They have some big names in their ownership group with Didier Drogba bringing his name recognition into the fold. They have a diverse, soccer loving populace that has a history of supporting the Mexican National Team when they come to town.
However, Phoenix has always been competing with oppressive summer heat conditions that would make playing their a challenge. A stadium would have to factor that into its design in order to make playing there a realistic possibility.
MLS president Mark Abbott back in July and Steve Malik’s prospective ownership group released stadium renderings during his visit. The facility looks gorgeous, but there isn’t any sort of plan to finance it and no news has come out of the market since that meeting. Without any sort of financing plan, it’s hard to imagine MLS choosing the city for an expansion franchise.
But the bid is still kicking. North Carolina FC, who would likely go to MLS if the bid is accepted, are weighing a move to the more MLS-friendly USL for next season, which could give them some time to adapt their club to the league in a more stable environment than the NASL currently provides.
TIER 5- STILL TECHNICALLY ALIVE
A financing measure may have been turned down by city voters last spring, but there are still rumblings of a private financing plan for a potential MLS stadium. Paul Edgerly is leading the long shot efforts to secure enough private money to build a soccer stadium near Union Station in downtown.
There is a passionate following for Saint Louis FC in the USL that would gladly see their team make the jump to MLS if such a plan can be figured out.
The prospective San Diego bid was delayed when they were unable to secure a vote on the redevelopment of Qualcomm Stadium, the former home of the former San Diego Chargers of the NFL. This doesn’t mean their bid is dead, it’s just delayed until they can catch up with local government regulations.
A vote is likely to happen next year, keeping them in the game for the second round of expansion, but you can truly count them out for the December announcement.
TIER 6- FORGET ABOUT IT
Local governments have long since denied any public funding for a stadium and there appears to be little support from the locals for anything to materialize. Charlotte Independence of the USL don’t do too well at the gate and have struggled to create much momentum for the game in recent years. It’s safe to say this bid isn’t going anywhere.
Much like Charlotte, local government isn’t offering any help towards building a stadium. Indy Eleven, despite being on the NASL’s more successful teams, are mired deep in the collapse of their league and may not be around for much longer. Little news has come out of the bid and nothing appears to be brewing. Indianapolis may have been a nice thought at the beginning of this process, but they aren’t getting an MLS team.
The two frontrunners of Nashville and Sacramento are in pole position to be awarded a franchise in December, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if MLS looks at Cincinnati and sees their large crowds and fun environment at Nippert Stadium and decides to bring them along without a new facility. All three should get a team. It’s just a matter of which round they get accepted.
Beyond that, if Detroit can get it’s stadium situation in line, I can’t imagine MLS turning down the largest market in the country without professional soccer. Should their stadium proposal fall through, it becomes a battle between Tampa and San Antonio with Tampa slightly in front. They have a stadium plan in place, even though the market around them might be a little crowded.