The first domino in the MLS expansion process fell on Tuesday as the league announced an event in Nashville for Wednesday that is expected to award the city with a franchise.
Now the tough decision-making has to occur with Sacramento, Cincinnati and Detroit still waiting to hear their names get called.
Most believe the decision will come down to Sacramento and Cincinnati, two recent soccer hotbeds that both deserve to make the step up from USL to the big show.
Detroit is on the outside looking in and has a better chance of refurbishing its bid for the process that will award teams 27 and 28, where there doesn’t seem to be a ton of outside competition at the moment.
Since stepping onto the field in USL in 2014, Sacramento Republic has been a darling of the second division and seemed certain to be on the fast track to MLS.
However, Nashville’s emergence with committed ownership and a strong stadium deal pushed it ahead of the California capital.
Sacramento has a stadium plan in place that would include private financing of the venue, with attendance not being an issue given the tremendous support the Republic has received during their time in the USL.
However, the one thing going against Sacramento is its location. With San Jose in close proximity and it would be the fourth California city to have an MLS team, with the two Los Angeles teams being the other two in the group.
Cincinnati has burst into the spotlight much like Sacramento did during its inception. FC Cincinnati has enjoyed success with large crowds backing it. FC Cincinnati’s stature in the public eye grew during the run to the U.S. Open Cup semifinals.
After weeks of debate in local government, Cincinnati was able to put together a stadium plan that is required by MLS to even have a chance at winning an expansion bid.
The elephant in the room when discussing Cincinnati is whether residing in the state of Ohio with the Columbus Crew relocation situation going on will affect it. No particular answer has been given regarding that scenario, and there’s no guarantee it would even come up as a road block.
Adding a second team east of the Mississippi River wouldn’t seem to be a concern for MLS, even with Miami still waiting to get it all together and join as the league’s 24th team.
Bringing in three teams that would presumably land in the Eastern Conference would appear to be a strike against Cincinnati, but there are ways around it, especially if the Crew end up moving to Austin.
The other conundrum MLS faces in the expansion process is if one of the new franchises would leapfrog Miami to become the 24th team, a possibility that Don Garber didn’t rule out during the State of the League address.
Cincinnati and Sacramento could conceivably play in 2019 in their current form while waiting for a stadium to be built. If Miami can somehow pull strings and get its act together for 2019, this won’t be an issue for the second expansion franchise.
Nothing has been confirmed on Nashville’s start date, but 2020 would make sense given the lack of club infrastructure compared to Cincinnati and Sacramento’s current USL functionality.
The bad news for the city left on the outside of this round of expansion is it risks losing support while a new batch of contenders try to line up everything possible to usurp Cincinnati or Sacramento.
Then there’s the unlikely situation in which MLS rules to allow both Cincinnati and Sacramento to enter the league based off the strength of their bids and leave the 28th team up for contention with Detroit presumably being the favorite given its position as a finalist in the current round of expansion.
Regardless of what you think may happen, both Cincinnati and Sacramento have proven that they deserve to be home to an MLS franchise. Now it all comes down to the question of how and when the next expansion steps will be taken.