Major League Soccer announced four finalists for the first round of two expansion slots to be announced next month. Sacramento, Nashville, Cincinnati, and Detroit will all make their final pitches to the league on Dec. 6, before the Board of Governors meets to discuss each city’s credentials eight days later.
A formal announcement on the next two teams to enter the league will come shortly thereafter.
Here’s a look at what each city has working both for and against it as it seeks admission into the league.
The capital of California has long been considered a favorite to land a team in this first round of expansion. They have everything in place for a new soccer-specific stadium and could begin construction at any time. All they need is the league to officially give them a team.
Sacramento Republic FC has strong attendance in the USL. They averaged 11,569 fans to their 15 home matches, good for second in the league. This isn’t a new trend either. The team has averaged over 11,000 fans for each of its four years of play.
The one thing possibly working against the Republic is their shaky investment situation. They have the backing of local entrepreneur Kevin Nagle and San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York, but other investors have been excluded from the process with little or no warning. Sacramento Republic founder Warren Smith was never included in the original expansion application and Meg Whitman, who joined up earlier this year, was unexpectedly excluded from the investment group before this announcement.
Nashville has a lot of momentum from recent expansion news. They recently gained funding for a soccer stadium at the Nashville Fairgrounds and, much like Sacramento, could start construction tomorrow if they so desired. Mayor Megan Berry is fully on board and the city council overwhelmingly backed the proposal. If the stadium is the most important thing MLS looks for, than Nashville certainly has that covered.
The Music City also has a history of strong support for international soccer matches. The U.S. Men’s National Team played their Gold Cup opener at Nissan Stadium in front of 47,000+ fans. Manchester City and Tottenham played a match as part of the International Champions Cup there in August and more than 56,000 showed up to watch.
Nashville’s case isn’t perfect, however. They have never had a professional team in the city at any level. Nashville SC is beginning play in the USL next year, but before that the city’s club history is limited to a handful of different amateur teams over the years. They certainly don’t have the minor league soccer fervor of Sacramento or Cincinnati, or even Detroit and their success in the NPSL.
Speaking of Cincinnati, the Queen City recently more or less checked off the all important stadium box. The city approved $36 million in infrastructure funding to help support a privately financed stadium project. This should clear the way for them to start stadium construction at any time if they are awarded a franchise.
If Sacramento has a strong USL following, Cincinnati has an astronomical one. FC Cincinnati has led the league in attendance each of its two seasons of play, averaging over 17,000 fans in 2016 and increasing that to over 21,000 for this past season. A particular highlight of their year was their run in the U.S. Open Cup, which saw over capacity crowds for matches against the Columbus Crew, Chicago Fire, and New York Red Bulls on their way to the semi-finals of the tournament.
Cincinnati’s main negative point is their not entirely solid stadium situation. Yes, they have the funding all in place, but the location took a while to nail down and MLS may be turned off by the full private funding project, while Sacramento and Nashville have secured a great deal of public money.
The Motor City looks very strong in the financing department. They have the wallets of two very rich NBA owners to fund their bid in Dan Gilbert and Tom Gores. The Ford Family, owners of the Detroit Lions, are also involved, bringing their potential ownership group up to three billionaires.
They have a place to play, albeit not a soccer specific stadium. The potential club would currently call Ford Field home after the Lions offered it up as a potential venue. Their original proposal called for a soccer stadium to be built on the site of an unfinished county jail. Gilbert and Gores are well on their way to acquiring the site, but the land swap isn’t final yet. Ford Field presents an option that’s ready right now.
Detroit may have a strong minor league soccer following, but the MLS bid hasn’t exactly succeeded in relating to them. Detroit City FC of the NPSL has averaged over 5,000 fans a game since moving to their newly renovated stadium in 2016, but their fans are vocally against MLS and their business model. The club’s supporters were also in an uproar after renderings of Ford Field in a soccer configuration used club and supporters group imagery without permission.