As we enter the midway point of the MLS season, and the middle of the calendar year, we’re supposedly less than six months away from a decision on MLS teams 25 and 26.
A few candidates have furthered their bids dramatically in recent months, such as the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Others have fallen off hard, with St. Louis and San Diego suffering big hits. Commissioner Don Garber has even visited a few of the candidate cities, bolstering the faith of supporters in Nashville and Cincinnati, while those in either of the North Carolina bids have been left wanting.
With so little time before MLS’ self-imposed decision deadline, the end of 2017, it’s worth taking a look at where each candidate stands in relation to the others. Here’s a look at the candidates bracketed into tiers of probability:
TIER 1- FRONTRUNNERS
The bid fronted by the Tampa Bay Rowdies and owner Bill Edwards was always one to take seriously. Edwards has the political capital within the American soccer scene to make a major push, and he’s utilized those resources to make a big push for one of the two expansion slots up for grabs in 2017. The Rowdies made their intentions clear when they made the leap from the NASL to the MLS-partnered USL at the beginning of the year. That move has paid off on the field, with the team sitting in playoff position through 18 matches, and was likely a helpful factor off the field through increased relations with MLS.
With a successful team, a dedicated and proven ownership group, and a major U.S. market, the Rowdies were just a stadium plan away when their bid was announced. That bid received a major boost into the top tier when, on May 2, St. Petersburg voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum that allowed the city to enter negotiations with Edwards for a 25-year lease on Al Lang Stadium. Edwards plan is to spend roughly $80 million to renovate and expand the Rowdies current home to a capacity of 18,000. Just like that, the Rowdies finished the final pillar of their bid and now simply await a decision from the league, one that Edwards hopes is made in his favor.
Much like the Rowdies bid, the Sacramento group comes backed by an existing USL team, the Republic, and their ownership group led by Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman. With a highly successful USL team, currently in playoff position, a strong ownership group, and a previously approved 20,000 seat stadium plan, the Republic were ready for MLS expansion before the process was even announced. The lone piece holding the bid back was a crucial one, however, as the group behind the MLS bid was apparently entirely unaffiliated with the Republic. The divisive nature of the two groups caused a great deal of anxiety in Sacramento, as it could have derailed an otherwise perfect bid.
That issue was resolved in early May as Sac Soccer & Entertainment Holdings, the group behind the MLS bid, announced the acquisition of the Republic and their official incorporation into the bid. The purchase brought major power to the ownership group, unifying Sac Soccer CEO Kevin Nagle, HP CEO Whitman, and San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York under a single banner. That’s a lot of firepower and all the more reason to keep Sacramento near the forefront of the expansion discussion.
TIER 2- ON THE CUSP
Nashville is an interesting bid, in that it didn’t start out as a frontrunner, but it has rapidly advanced itself into a strong position. With a powerful ownership group, lead by local billionaire John R. Ingram and including the CEOs of both the Nashville Predators and Tennessee Titans, this bid has advanced its case methodically and effectively with great assistance from the local government. With the acquisition of the USL’s Nashville SC, the bid gave itself a firm soccer background that will be well-established by the time the MLS team itself debuts.
The only missing piece is the stadium, and it appears to be a relatively small obstacle for the group to overcome. The bid has already targeted a site located at The Fairgrounds Nashville, owned by the city, and financing is all but secure with Ingram and Mayor Megan Barry already in negotiations and aiming to wrap up by later in 2017. On top of that, Nashville hosted a record crowd for its U.S. Men’s National Team Gold Cup match on Saturday, and in attendance was Don Garber. Garber attested himself that the Nashville bid was rapidly rising up the ranks and was worth keeping an eye on. As soon as the stadium plan becomes official, you could easily see Nashville slide into that top tier with Tampa and Sacramento.
Cincinnati has arguably the strongest case of all the bids from a soccer perspective. Led by USL darlings FC Cincinnati, the group has already proven the huge desire for a second professional soccer team in the state of Ohio. After a stunning debut season of tens of thousands in attendance on average, FC Cincy has somehow grown their crowds even further. The team is drawing just shy of 20,000 per match, which bests more than half of all MLS teams currently, and brought record crowds to its two U.S. Open Cup matches. Their Open Cup run has shown that the talent is also present in Cincy, as they head into the quarterfinals against Miami FC seeking to continue into the final four.
Much like Nashville, they sit on the precipice of frontrunner status with an asterisk next to their stadium situation. FC Cincy has proposed a $200 million, 25,000 seat stadium in West End, Oakley, or Newport, which the team hopes to have wrapped up by the end of the summer to break ground in 2018. While none of that financing has yet been approved, nor has the exact location been decided, there has been no lack of political support to raise concerns that the plan might fall through a la St. Louis. If Cincy gets a stadium approved, they might not only jump to frontrunner status, but may even become top dog.
TIER 3- DARK HORSES
Potentially the best ownership situation of the bunch, the San Antonio bid is backed by the Spurs Sports & Entertainment Group, widely considered one of the top in the country. The group already has a link to the USL’s San Antonio FC, which is having an immensely successful 2017 season so far. With a hand in multiple sports teams, including the San Antonio Spurs, the group led by Julianna Holt certainly has the finances and know-how to run a top-tier sports franchise. With Houston and Dallas well taken-up by their respective MLS franchises, San Antonio FC will aim to please their local market along with state capital Austin, not too far away.
The issue for San Antonio, much like many other candidates, is the soccer-specific stadium requirement. While there are a lot of rumblings around renovations to Toyota Field just outside of downtown San Antonio, involving the addition of 10,000 seats, 18 suites, and a roof, there has been little substantial information coming out of the bid camp. As we enter the second half of the year, radio silence is not a good look for MLS as we approach decision time. Without a concrete plan and some approved public or entirely private financing, San Antonio simply doesn’t have a path forward. If that all comes together, and there is still time for that to happen, San Antonio could find themselves in the throng of the hunt.
Aside from the shoe-melting heat, Phoenix is indeed rising as a candidate for MLS expansion. The ownership group lacks the flash of its competitors, but is a solid stable of people from diverse backgrounds, and picked up one major addition along the ride. When Didier Drogba signed with Phoenix as a player/owner, it almost sounded too good to be true. But so far, the Drogba/Phoenix connection has been as good as advertised, with solid results on the field and a huge increase in notoriety off of it.
Once again, the talk of expansion possibility rolls into stadium concerns. Phoenix Rising rapidly completed a 6,200 seat pop-up stadium in a mere 52 days to play host to the team during the 2017 USL season, and the team has retained Goldman Sachs as an agent in financing the team’s proposed MLS stadium. The issue comes from the fact that none of the details of that construction have been made public to date. Aside from an expected capacity of 20,000 and being fully privately financed on the current USL stadium site, very little is known about the stadium plan. No renderings have been released, and any construction will need to factor in the ridiculous heat, probably with an indoor, air-conditioned environment. Until that is unveiled and the details announced, there isn’t a reason to leap Phoenix over the teams ahead of them.
TIER 4- SIGNIFICANT MISSING COMPONENTS
NORTH CAROLINA FC
The Raleigh-Durham bid was always a strange one on its face. After their more MLS-friendly re-brand, North Carolina FC opted to remain in the NASL rather than jump ship to the MLS-partnered USL like the Rowdies did, an odd choice for a team aiming to enter MLS themselves. But the Triangle is an appealing area for MLS in terms of demographics, heavy with students from the local universities with very good soccer teams among them. The team hasn’t been terribly impressive in the NASL this season, but the ownership group obviously contains a good deal of experience with American soccer at this point.
The issue of stadium is more pronounced in this tier of candidates. While tier 3 and 2 candidates may not have their stadium situations fully resolved, they’re more streamlined that tier 4’s issues. Very little has come out of owner Steve Malik’s camp. A stadium was included in the MLS bid proposal, but no site has been selected, no funding secured, and it will almost certainly have to go through the local government. While the team could find a temporary home in one of the college soccer facilities in the area, the lack of a permanent residence or a plan for one seemingly hampers this bid big time. Unless a major shift happens soon, North Carolina is likely out for slots 25 and 26.
Another strange decision from an NASL-backed bid. Much like North Carolina FC above, the Indy Eleven opted to not jump ship to the USL last offseason. Similarly, their 2017 campaign has been lacking, but Indianapolis doesn’t have the young, college appeal that the Triangle of North Carolina does. Owner Ersal Ozdemir relied heavily on Peter Wilt to help successfully launch the Eleven, and isn’t tremendously involved in sports himself otherwise. But Indianapolis is a big sports city, with the Colts and Pacers well-supported, and the Indy 500 is one of the premier races worldwide.
The city has a history of funding stadium projects, such as the Colts’ Lucas Oil Stadium and Pacers’ Bankers Life Fieldhouse. However, it remains to be seen if the Eleven can secure the same support. The planned stadium would be largely publicly funded, with the ownership group contributing just $10 million towards construction, and so far the public has proved unwilling. The Eleven attempted to secure stadium funding in 2015, which died in committee, before renovation funding was approved but the source of which was unable to be decided on. Since that time, little progress has been made, with no vote so far approving funding or location. Without that, Indy doesn’t have a chance.
The Detroit bid is an interesting one. On the surface, it’s a major city, with a proud sports culture, and the ownership group consists of two NBA team owners. All in all, that’s a very good start. There’s a proven desire for soccer in the city with the NPSL’s Detroit City FC drawing huge crowds for a fourth division team. It appears to be a perfect match for an MLS franchise. But like many things, political will gets in the way of even the best laid plans.
The Detroit bid, led by Detroit Piston’s owner Tom Gores and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, has targeted the site of a half-constructed Wayne County jail as their desired location. The city has been soliciting bids for the location, and originally rejected one from the Detroit group to build a new justice complex elsewhere to free up the site. The group submitted a second bid, as a breath of new life, and the city will consider it along with a bid from a local construction company to finish the jail. The city, however, has stated that price is the defining factor, and the construction company has the edge with the cheaper cost. Additionally, the bid is still early in their process by their own admission. Unless the political system of Detroit starts moving quickly, and good luck with that, bids 25 and 26 are likely out of the picture. The group could still push for 27 and 28 though.
TIER 5- ESSENTIALLY ELIMINATED
A departing NFL team, a wide-open stadium site ripe for the taking, and a history of soccer support via the U.S. Men’s National Team and cross-border locals Tijuana of Liga MX, and San Diego seemed like a flawless selection for an MLS team. With Landon Donovan at the helm as the major spokesman for the bid, and a city hungering for a big-time sports presence, sorry Padres, San Diego started this round of bidding as an easy frontrunner. Things haven’t quite gone to plan, however, and any San Diego resident can tell you that city politics are brutal indeed.
In their quest to secure the Qualcomm Stadium site for their new development, Soccer City San Diego, the ownership group turned to a public vote instead of pressuring the city council to unilaterally grant the site to the group. Things haven’t gone as planned, however, as a request to have the vote held on a special ballot in 2017 was rejected, seemingly signaling an end to hopes for slots 25 and 26. Rival developers have been fierce in their opposition and now there is a very real chance the vote won’t be held until 2018. While this might keep hopes of slots 27 and 28 alive, and the group maintains that public support is behind them, it has dramatically altered the landscape of the expansion race.
The St. Louis MLS bid may one day be looked back on as the start of a rebellion against public stadium funding. Certainly it will make an interesting case study for future generations to look back on. The bid looked fantastic, much like San Diego, and was an early frontrunner with big MLS dreams. A recently departed football team, a young, sports-hungry demographic, and seemingly stable ownership group in SC STL were all good signs. However, where San Diego’s stadium proposal would be entirely privately funded, St. Louis relied heavily on the public sector.
That discrepancy proved a fatal flaw to the St. Louis bid. Whereas the San Diego public may be willing to support a privately funded effort to replace their lost Chargers, the St. Louis public was not prepared to open their own wallets. Recently burned by the departure of the Rams, and the emptying of their still-being-paid-for stadium, the St. Louis public rejected a request for first $80 million in funding from the city. That left a sour taste when all of a sudden, the ownership group miraculously found an additional $20 million lying around and requested a mere $60 million from the city and public. The vote went about as well as could be expected, which is to say up in flames, and St. Louis was left without a stadium plan. Despite promises, no ‘Plan B’ has emerged, and St. Louis has gone from frontrunner to also-ran very rapidly.
The Charlotte bid was always an underdog. With the North Carolina FC Triangle bid widely seen as the stronger of the two, it appeared that Charlotte didn’t have much of a chance to beat out the other 12 candidates if they couldn’t even secure supremacy in their own state. While their demographics are favorable, owner Marcus Smith has little soccer experience, the area has little soccer history, and the bid seemed very rushed to meet the Jan. 31 deadline for submission. With no team, no experience, and no stadium plan set, the Charlotte bid started at zero and has made very little progress.
That hasn’t changed in recent months, and in fact has only gotten worse. Charlotte has suffered two huge hits to its candidacy since their bid announcement. The first was when the Charlotte city government rejected a vote in late January to provide money towards an MLS stadium. The second came more recently in June, when the county commission opted to defer its portion of the project funding, leaving Charlotte with essentially nothing at all. The commission voted to remove MLS funding from the annual capital budget, and stated they’d reconsider in early August is there was enough interest in investing. Smith states the bid continues, but in all likelihood, Charlotte can say goodbye to its MLS hopes this round.