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The state of the MLS expansion race

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:



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.



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.


tampa/St. petersburg

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.

san antonio

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.



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.

north carolina

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.


st. louis

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.

san diego

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.



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.


  1. I remember a few years back looking forward to a live match (which was rare then) and the Charlotte TV station put a very old movie on in place of the match. Karma is good!



    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.

    • Play on the field has drastically improved as expansion has occurred. Toronto, Seattle, Portland, Atlanta, and NYCFC are all expansion franchises that have come in at least relatively recently.

      • @Don You’re absolutely right that Cincy is putting Columbus to shame, but that’s true for about half of MLS and almost all of USL. Contracting or relocating the Crew should only be done as a last resort once MLS has run out of expansion slots, which is years down the road.

        Furthermore, if any of you think MLS isn’t going to consider options to keep going from 28 to 32 teams, I don’t know what to tell you. The world cup is going to have 48 teams, the Euro has 24 and the Argentine Premera has 28 teams. MLS artificially creating a lack of supply to force better bids is just smart business.

      • @Don Just to show you how easy 32 teams would be schedule wise:

        Two 16 team conferences each with two 8 team divisions. You play each division opponent home and away (14 games). Play the other intra-conference opponents once, rotating home and away each season (8 games). You play 12 out of the other 16 inter-conference opponents once on a rotating schedule so that you play each team three out of every four years and rotating home and away so that you play each team home and away three times in an eight year stretch (12 games).

        There’s your 34 games per season. If teams don’t play a balanced schedule like in many leagues, then there’s no reason why you should have to play every team every year.

  2. The solution regarding Cincy is to relocate Columbus there. Columbus has the most attractive team (and pretty damn successful, too) over the last few years, and they don’t ever fill that stadium up. Columbus doesn’t support their team and that hurts the television product and numbers, which is critical at this point.

    • @Lamb As nice as that option might seem, alienating any market is unwise unless they are getting near Chivas USA levels of fan support, much less the town that made “Dos a Cero” famous. Contraction and relocation should only be used as a last resort. Columbus is only third from the bottom in attendance and only a few thousand fans away from passing Philly, Chicago and Houston. Your take is pretty popular in soccer comment sections, but with all due respect, you don’t know what you’re talking about

      • I studied your chart, and one of the things that jumped out at me was the fact that the only team to draw a crowd smaller than Crew this season was when NYCFC played a home game in CT. 15k is not good enough for a franchise that has everything in place. For the record, Dallas’ attendance is not good enough either, but that market necessitates some patience, even long term maybe. Columbus, not so much. Colorado is in the same boat, but they have an excuse with horrible teams for the majority of their existence. Dos-a-cero history has nothing to do with it. Why don’t people show up for Crew games? They play the most attractive style in the league and have had lots of success. The issue is that the market is just not there, so the danger of “alienating a market” is moot. If they don’t show up to their own home games, I would guess they aren’t watching a lot of other MLS teams on tv. On the other hand, there are lots of markets out there that would support a team. Why leave a team in a place where they draw embarrassingly low crowds when other places deserve a team. Cincy puts Columbus to shame. If it takes relocation to make the league better, so be it.

  3. @JoeDirt…the NorCal footprint is not filled by San Jose. No one in Sacramento cares about the Earthquakes, watches them on TV, or wears their colors. This is already a Republic FC town, with or without MLS. There is no “overlap”, whatever that means. Two separate cities/markets but close enough to be a great rivalry, which it will be in a couple of years.

  4. The Nashville metro population is 1.9 million. ..36th largest, with that emcompassing 14 counties. That seems like a big mistakes. Are they really that soccer crazy in Tennesee?
    I would have thought the opposite, no offense to anyone that IS and lives there.

    • Nashville’s NHL team just had its 2nd?? consecutive season of sellout crowds at every home game. One of the best atmospheres in NHL as well. Its a pretty decent sports town with a young, growing population.
      Charlotte supports its teams well also. In addition to the Panthers and Hornets they’ve had the best AAA baseball attendance for years. Again, young and fast growing city.

      I don’t think there is a time soon where MLS will stop expansion unless the money stops flowing. There are several very good options for expansion, soccer’s popularity continues to grow and that = more $$. They will figure out the logistics of making the league work on the back end. Don’t ever forget that MLS is a business and these clubs are investments for the owners. Money will drive decision making.

    • @Quit Nashville had 47K fans at the only soccer game held in that city for all of 2017. With that kind of support, Nashville should honestly host every World Cup. Why would you go anywhere else?

  5. Garber announced MLS is expanding to 28 teams before the same year the current TV contract runs out. Not a coincidence, and that makes the four expansion spots all about expanding the TV footprint of MLS.
    Which four markets expand the footprint the most before the next TV right contract is negotiated. Its not about who has the most supporters in USL or most local support. Its about market size and footprint of MLS.
    Based on that and don’t hate me but I think this years will go to Detroit and Phoenix. Next 2 will be one of the Carolina options and San Diego. After that Garber will announce a year or two later that MLS will be expanding to 30/32 conveniently before the next TV right deal expires.

    It will be unfortunate for cities like Sacremento and San Antonio in markets who are already nearby other MLS markets. Could Sacremento or San Antonio be a successful franchise, unquestionably yes but it doesn’t benefit MLS to continue to overlap in that Nor Cal or Texas market when other large states/regions like Michigan, Arizona, and the Carolinas have no teams at all. A larger footprint equal bigger TV rights deals down the line and that’s what we need to get the salary cap higher and roster depth up.
    Full disclosure, native/current Charlottean and used to live in Atlanta for 15 years and current ATL United fan. Wish Charlotte had its act together on the stadium but its not going to happen for us at least this expansion round.

    • Sacramento is the 20th largest TV market in the US and a bigger TV market than several existing MLS citites. Sacramento gets mistakenly lumped in with the SF Bay Area. It shouldn’t.

      Sacramento is a lock. MLS will want a “sexy” expansion city to join Sacramento. I’d bet on Detroit. Sacramento and Detroit will generate a lot more buzz than Sacramento and Nashville, or Cincy.

      • @Cabrito, Phoenix is #12 TV market and no team in the state of AZ at the moment. Phoenix fills a bigger need in the TV footprint to move the next TV contract forward as does Detroit(#!3) with the state of MI.
        Tampa(#11) is kind of screwed by upcoming Miami expansion and nearby Orlando. MLS won’t want to commit to 3 FL franchises so quickly IMO.
        Sacramento(#20) has a similar overlap problem with San Jose and the upcoming expansion of LAFC to the south, but I could see Sacramento getting a bid over San Diego which is only #28.
        Cincy(#36) has similar issues too with a nearby franchise Columbus(#32) overlapping that market and if Detroit (#12)gets a bid as I think is obvious then that’s also an issue. Cleveland market is #19 too but no team.
        San Antonio #31 has the same issue with Dallas #5 and Houston #8 in the same state
        Charlotte #22 and Raleigh #24, either one would fill out the hole MLS has in the Carolina region but more likely in the next round IMO.
        Then you have St. Louis #21, Pittsburgh #23, Indianapolis #27 and Nashville #29 as kind of a middle America hole fillers.

        Again, MLS is most concerned with increasing the TV dollars and in that equation local supporters can show up in droves at USL matches but I don’t think thats the highest variable MLS is looking for. I think it goes by first local market, ownership group, stadium plan, then local supporters.

    • Check your facts. Sacramento is a larger TV market (20th) than Charlotte (24th), Raleigh-Durham (27th), or San Diego (28th).

      • I did, I can see Sac getting in over San Diego but the that doesn’t change the fact that the Nor Cal region already is filled in MLS’ footprint by San Jose. The other markets of Detroit, Phoenix, and Carolinas are still holes in the MLS national footprint.

      • @JoeyDirtMaGirt San Antonio is 274 and 197 miles from Dallas and Houston respectively and Dallas and Houston themselves are 239 miles apart. The Texas Triangle would cover a much larger area than a Florida triangle would given that Orlando and Tampa are only 80 miles apart (you can easily see this in the handy map you posted). That’s only half a mile larger than the distance between Austin and San Antonio, and both are only 20 miles smaller than the 100 miles between Columbus and Cincy.

        San Antonio’s real issue in terms of MLS is that MLS is waiting to see if they can get Austin instead (despite being closer to Dallas and Houston). SA’s proximity to the other Texas MLS teams is a non factor unlike the Florida and Ohio teams mentioned above. To look at SA any other way to to show you don’t know what you’re talking about

    • I get it… there are bigger TV markets than Sacramento. That, thankfully, isn’t the only criteria for getting a MLS franchise.

      Phoenix and San Diego are both way behind in the process to be considered for this round of expansion. If Sacramento loses in their expansion bid, it won’t be because of either of these two cities. Throwing up random cities with no expansion bid (or a weak expansion bid) doesn’t really make sense here.

      Geography lesson: San Jose and Sacramento are about 100 miles apart and are there own/separate metro areas. It’s like saying San Diego shouldn’t get a team because LA already has one. Same goes for Seattle and Portland.

      Sacramento is a lock and deservedly so.

      • I wouldn’t get your hopes so high this round buddy. Next round or when they go to 30/32. Calling it a lock is a bit much given the demographics. Don’t get me wrong I like what they’re doing there and think it’ll be a great city for MLS in future rounds but we gotta max out the next TV deal to get that salary cap up and cities like Sac, SanAntonio, and Cincy just isn’t going to make ESPN/FOX pay the higher number than filling in the wider regional holes that MLS has. BTW 100 miles isn’t really that far apart and kinda makes my point that its part of the same Nor Cal region.

    • @Joe Dirt Demographics? It’s one of the most diverse cities in the country and growing. See you here in December. Bring some crow.

      • @Cabrito, you mad bro? “Diverse”? Didn’t mean to trigger you with the word demographics buddy but just saying there are other larger TV markets and regions that need to be filled in the MLS footprint. Again NorCal has a team, maybe you should be a Quakes fan since you’re only 100 miles away. Give some love to the folks in AZ and MI who got nothing.

  6. Rowdies season ticket holder here. As it relates to over crowding the market, hope that MLS brass will look no further than the Pacific NW. There is enough room for both teams, and the I-4 rivalry would be great for the league. I did not switch to an Orlando City fan when the team was announced, and don’t plan to even if the Rowdies are passed over by MLS.

    • I live closer to Tampa than Orlando, but I don’t see myself switching allegiances. I readily concede that I have a bias against NASL teams, so that may play into it. I just can’t stand how NASL has tried to act like it was on par with MLS and lived in some alternate universe when it can barely remain in existence… So I’m much more in favor of Beckam’s outfit getting up in running, although I’m running out of patience.

      • What did you want NASL to do different? They were a soccer league trying to attract fans to their teams. They didn’t want to be MLS minor league. You have to respect that, no?

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