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Volume 21 No. 33
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Expansion a hot topic for ever-growing MLS

Commissioner says there’s ‘no timetable,’ but even with three clubs expected to join the league by 2020, the plan is to reach 28 teams next decade.
Photo: Getty Images

With MLS’s overwhelmingly successful expansion to Atlanta on full display at last week’s All-Star Game, there was a healthy buzz about what’s ahead for the league’s next three slotted teams — Cincinnati, Miami and Nashville.

 

Their visibility was never more apparent than at the league’s annual board of governors meeting on Aug. 1, with Carl Lindner III (Cincinnati), John Ingram (Nashville) and Jorge Mas (Miami) hoisting their club’s respective flags for the first time. Those men join a group that has swelled both in size and ambition in recent years thanks to the ownership groups from LAFC, Minnesota, New York City FC and Orlando City SC, bringing the league to 23 clubs.

 

But even as those three new teams have yet to launch — Cincinnati will debut in 2019, with Nashville expected to start in 2020 and Miami hoping to do the same — the question has already shifted to what the next two markets to join MLS will be. Commissioner Don Garber said, “There’s no timetable” for further expansion, but he continues to chart a course toward having at least 28 clubs well ahead of the arrival in North America of the 2026 World Cup.

  

Ten cities remain in play for the next round of expansion: Charlotte, Detroit, Indianapolis, Phoenix, Raleigh/Durham, Sacramento, San Antonio, San Diego, St. Louis and Tampa/St. Petersburg.

However, those cities have not yet been given any hard deadlines by the league for additional information or in-person visits, much less for when a decision will be made.

 

Part of that comes from the league not needing to rush the process with three cities already in the pipeline, as well as the potential relocation of the Columbus Crew to Austin. But it is also a reflection of the progress — or lack thereof — from those 10 cities.

 

Candidate Cities For Expansion

■ Charlotte
■ Detroit
■ Indianapolis
■ Phoenix
■ Raleigh/Durham
■ Sacramento
■ San Antonio
■ San Diego
■ St. Louis
■ Tampa/St. Petersburg

The early front-runners to claim the next two expansion spots are Detroit and Sacramento, who were finalists last fall before losing out to Cincinnati and Nashville, respectively. Detroit, backed by prospective owners Dan Gilbert and Tom Gores, ticks all of the major boxes, including a stadium plan and corporate support, although it remains to be seen if MLS can be swayed to have the team play at spacious Ford Field, home of the NFL’s Lions, instead of its own soccer-specific stadium. Sacramento has a stadium site and a fervent fan base in place, but it is still seeking a deep-pocketed investor who would serve as owner. Discussions have taken place with Pittsburgh Penguins owner Ron Burkle as well as others.

 

Phoenix and Raleigh, which like Cincinnati and Sacramento found traction for their markets in the USL, are in the mix. Both are charting out ambitious stadium plans that will need to be further outlined. San Diego’s plan to build a stadium in a massive development site in the city will be put to a vote later this fall.

 

At this point, the other five bidders seem unlikely contenders. However, Nashville was able to move from being a long shot to securing a team in just 11 months thanks to a local investor — Ingram — emerging and galvanizing the market, proving that things can change quickly. 

 

The league has shifted its approach to expansion, with a willingness to look beyond just market size and potential Nielsen television ratings to embrace cities that can generate buzz and fan engagement in their cities. That’s just what happened in Atlanta, where the United have been playing to record crowds, and it is what MLS believes will happen in both
Cincinnati and Nashville.

 

There are no additional expansion mandates expected from the league this calendar year, but if Atlanta’s three-year buildup to its MLS launch has shown anything, it’s that a long wait can be well worth it.