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The Current State of MLS Expansion

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MLS just made the announcement that they are expanding up to 30 teams. We already know who is going to be at 25, 26, and 27. But who comes after that?

FC Cincinnati Announcement With MLS Commissioner Don Garber Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Way back in March of 2017, I went in depth and broke down each of the 12 expansion bids that had been made for the next four MLS expansion sides. Now, that process is wrapping up with Don Garber talking about teams 28 and 29.

All this started after MLS announced that it was looking for formal bids for the 25th, 26th, 27th, and 28th teams. 12 teams made bids and, coupled with Miami finally making some real moves and the addition of Austin FC, the league is currently set to have 27 teams by 2021. The expected additions of St. Louis and Sacramento bring that original bidding process to a close, with all four spots finally allocated (albeit, only after a lot of drama and a convoluted process).

Here’s a recap on what’s happened with each of the 12 bidding cities, plus Miami and Austin.

Meet the New Players

Here’s a break down of what’s been going on with the announced expansion teams from this round.

Nashville

Nashville was the first city to be named in this round of MLS expansion, grabbing slot number 25 in December of 2017. Nashville has a USL team, Nashville SC, owned by the same ownership group, which began play last year. The MLS team will began play in 2020.

I had wrote that, if Nashville could get its stadium situation in order, it could win one of the later two spots, the ones now up for grabs. However, things worked out in just the right way for the Tennessee bid. Strong bids from St. Louis and San Diego fell apart, while Sacramento and Cincinnati scrambled to get the final pieces together. In the meantime, Nashville was able to quickly make arrangements for a 27,000+ stadium on the Nashville Fairgrounds and then secure funding from the city to finance a $225 million stadium project. That funding essentially took the form of a loan, with the city issuing bonds to raise the money. That money will be paid back by the owner, John Ingram, pitching in $25 million up front, and then paying $9 million annually for 30 years. The remaining difference in cost from the bond issuance is to be made up by taxes on ticket sales.

At the time, Nashville are preparing for MLS. They’ve hired Ian Ayre as the CEO, former Managing Director of Liverpool F.C. in the English Premier League. They are looking into finding a technical director, coach, and facilities for MLS play. At the moment, with a year before they begin play, there are talks about temporarily playing at Nissan Stadium while the Fairgrounds facility is built. Nashville FC currently play at First Tennessee Park, a minor league baseball stadium that houses 10,000 people. The team has averaged third in the USL, with just over 10,000 attending per game through the regular season (The team played their inaugural match at Nissan Stadium to a crowd of nearly 19,000). Nashville FC play in USL again this year, before joining MLS in 2020.

Cincinnati

FC Cincinnati was already a runaway success in 2017. Over the course of the next year, it somehow gotten even bigger. So big, in fact, that MLS simply couldn’t ignore it. MLS finally made it official in May of 2018, naming the city and team as the 26th MLS club (though they took the field as the 24th). Back in the inaugural season, in 2016, Cincinnati already drew more than 5 MLS clubs. In 2018, the club managed an average attendance in excess of 25,000, good enough to place the club well within the top 5 in MLS, only behind Atlanta, Seattle, and Toronto. After breaking USL attendance record after attendance record, FC Cincinnati clearly had become too big a fish for such a small pond and was ready for a move to something bigger. They’ve now started off in MLS fairly well, outperforming (modest) expectations on the field thus far, while picking up from their USL attendance rate and slotting in at third for the season thus far with an average of over 28,000 over three games.

But why did it take so long?

FC Cincinnati seemed to have everything. They had a massively successful, proven lower division club team, one that pulled in more people than about half the teams in the English Premier League. They had a prominent, local billionaire standing behind the team. They had a team of experienced administrators and team officials who were able to put forward a successful product. What they didn't have was a soccer-specific stadium.

For Cincinnati, just like with most of the expansion bids, everything hung on getting a stadium deal in the sort of urban and central environment that MLS is looking for. FC Cincinnati got that done three times. First was a deal secured for the rights to build in Newport, just across the Ohio river from Cincinnati with a view of the river and both the professional football and baseball stadiums. But that wasn’t in the city proper, so it wasn’t good enough. Then came approval for a stadium and public infrastructure funding in the neighborhood of Oakley, a neighborhood that was in Cincinnati, but a few miles away from downtown, in a quieter neighborhood. That wasn’t central enough, so it wasn’t good enough. Then came a hotly debated effort to get approval for a stadium in the West End, a neighborhood in downtown Cincinnati, with the site right next to the city’s redeveloping entertainment district, Over-The-Rhine. After a very public and fraught process, FC Cincinnati was able to strike a deal to build new stadium on the site of a public high school football stadium, with the team rebuilding the football stadium elsewhere and receiving about $35 million in public funds to make public infrastructure improvements.

And that new stadium was apparently good enough. The team was announced for this season as the 26th MLS expansion, though they actually wound up as the 24th team to begin play. The team finished up their last season in USL by wiping the floor with the competition (closing out the regular season with a 22 game undefeated streak), and now have started decently well in their inaugural MLS season. Now, the club’s working on getting the academy and infrastructure for next season, along with the design for that new stadium.

The stadium is set to have an attendance just north of 25,000, at a cost of around $250 million. The league appears to be quite excited to have FC Cincinnati and it’s new stadium, with officials really talking it up. Apparently, Don Garber even once said this about the new stadium.

“This could be Bernabéu. This could be Anfield. You have a stadium that’s going to be built in a great, great part of the community.”

Construction for the Cincinnati stadium is currently under way, with an expected opening date of spring 2021. In the meantime, the team is playing at their current home at Nippert Stadium on the campus of the University of Cincinnati.

Miami

Alas, it seems like the days of making fun of Miami and Beckham for failing to get AC Miami Deportivo de Beckham United SC are coming to an end. David Beckham exercised a provision in his MLS contract that allowed him to get a massive discount on an MLS expansion team (just $40 million!!) way back in 2014. And since then, the expected expansion team has stumbled from one stadium proposal to another, delaying the team’s debut again and again and again.

First, Beckham, along with his team of investors, tried to build a gorgeous waterfront stadium in Port Miami. That plan was killed, in part by opposition from the cruise industry. Then came a plan to put the stadium close to the arena of the Miami Heat, filling in a boat slip and building on the reclaimed land and part of Museum Park. That too was scrapped. Then came the death of a plan near Marlin’s Stadium, axed after local property owners started demanding some serious Beckham bucks for the land to build the stadium. And then the search got quiet. Slowly, Beckham pieced together the necessary parcels of property for a stadium in Overtown, a not-so-safe neighborhood that happened to be ideally located next to Miami’s downtown. When he finally convinced the county to sell the final parcel of land last year, it seemed like Athletic CD Miami Beckham FC would finally happen. MLS went ahead and announced the expansion (again?). And then it didn’t happened. New investors Jorge and Jose Mas apparently killed the deal (though the massive opposition might have played a part in it).

Somehow, in the course of a year, the Beckham ownership group killed a stadium plan that seemed to be on the verge of fruition, and began cobbling together a plan to actually field a team. They released a stylish crest in popping pink. They put together a stadium plan and actually got it through a first round of local government approval, along with a place on the election ballots. Miami Freedom Park, a massive project replacing a public golf course with an MLS stadium, soccer fields, public parks, hotels, and commercial space, stands on the verge of actually happening.

Freedom Park, a massive project that expected to cost at least $1 billion would now be voted on by local residents. At issue was whether or not the city would be allowed to lease the land without going through an open bidding process. And voters came forward and decisively voted “Yes”. All told, Miami has their act together, at least as far as their eventual home goes.

Only thing is, where does the team play until then? To go with the stadium in Miami, Beckham and friends apparently want to tear down and replace Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale. Yup, MLS to Miami thought it was a good idea, after all these years of struggle, to go out and try and get TWO stadium deals done. With the second site in some pretty rough shape.

The redeveloped site would host an 18,000 seat stadium and training facility, allowing Inter Miami to play there until the Freedom Park project is finished, with a future USL side eventually taking up residence.

Miami is (actually) expected to take the field in 2020.

Austin

Austin, Texas, really wasn’t supposed to be on this list. It wasn’t one of the bid cities from 2017. It wasn’t a significant target for expansion rumor and news. It didn’t have a successful lower league side (that team moved to Orlando and eventually became the Orlando MLS team.) Austin is on this list because owner Anthony Precourt wanted a team in Austin, threatening moving the Columbus Crew (which he then owned) to make it happen. In the end, it all got worked out, with the Crew remaining under new ownership and Austin getting a new team owned by Precourt. It turns out, with MLS already looking at spots 28 and 29, Austin didn’t even take one of those coveted expansion places. So, Austin is getting a new team. MLS expansion is weird and convoluted. So it goes.

The Austin expansion is centered around a stadium in McKalla place, a former chemical site that now sits close to The Domain, a significant developed hub a few miles north of downtown. The plan calls for turning the disused land into a 20,500 seat stadium, integrated into the developed area. The expectation is that the stadium will open with the team’s debutant season in 2021, at a private expense of $240 million.


The Inside Track

Before the expanding the announcement that MLS was going to 30 teams, it looked like there was going to be a bit of a dog fight for that 28th expansion slot. Now, with two spots currently getting worked instead of one, with that 30th just around the corner, there’s more space for the remaining bids to breathe. Still, Garber named two bids, stating that Sacramento and St. Louis were scheduling for “exclusive formal discussions”. With MLS talking about announcing the next two expansions later this year at a cost of $200 million each, it’s pretty reasonable to expect Sacramento and St. Louis to take those two spots. Here’s how they break down.

Sacramento

The Sacramento Republic has been waiting a long time for this. They were, of course, the hot story in the lower leagues until Cincinnati came along. It seemed that the Sacramento announcement was on the cusp of coming out years ago, yet the bid has been strung along all this time. They looked like the front runner, only to fall behind first Nashville and then Cincinnati. What changed?

There was always a lot of compelling stuff behind Sacramento. As I talked about in the 2017 piece, they had the stadium plan and they had the support. What they didn’t have was a wealthy and cohesive ownership group. My impression was that, when MLS announced Sacramento as one of four finalists alongside Nashville, Cincinnati, and Detroit, was that the league was waiting for the California bid to get it’s act together. Nashville and Cincinnati got their ducks sorted first, so Sacramento went waiting.

Since then, Sacramento have found new money in the form of billionaire Ron Burkle. Burkle became part of Sacramento’s bid at the start of the year, finally tying up the major loose ends. There’s still some work to be done, with Don Garber saying “They need to finalize their corporate sponsorship support and they need to finalize their stadium plan ... They have ownership of the land, but they have a handful of outstanding issues that they need to work on.” But it looks like Sacramento to MLS is finally going to happen. My guess is that they will step into the league in 2021, alongside Austin, bringing the league up to an even 28 teams.

For more on the Sacramento Republic, check out Indomitable City Soccer.

St. Louis

In spring of 2017, the St. Louis bid seemed to be a frontrunner. St. Louis is, of course, that hallowed mythical land where soccer was relatively popular during the fallow years in the middle of the 20th century. The city had just been vacated unceremoniously by the Rams (for Los Angeles) and had an opening for a new sports team. The only thing was that the entire proposal hinged on getting passed a single vote. The bid depended on a the passage of a $50 million stadium funding package, which voters denied. And, just like that, the St. Louis bid was dead.

But what is dead may never die. And, somehow, the St. Louis bid rose again, this time, harder and stronger. A new bid formed out of the ashes of the old, this time, centered around Caroline Kindle Betz, part of the Taylor family that founded and runs Enterprise: Rent -a-Car, and the first potential female major stakeholder in MLS. The bid hinged on a $250 million stadium plan, this time, privately financed. The proposal avoided a public vote entirely, going for a tax break that only needed approval from the city’s Board of Aldermen. The bid won the first vote 26-2 in November for a resolution on the tax break. That leaves St. Louis on firm footing moving forward. The stadium just needs final approval to be ready to go ahead, and that leaves St. Louis ready to step into MLS.

Everybody Else

And that spells out all the concrete information as far as expansion is concerned. Everything else is up in the air and much more distant. The remaining bid are, to quote Garber from March, “cities that, should we ever decide to expand beyond 28, would have to be considered as part of a next round.” With MLS looking to wrap up this round and move to the next, these cities stand as the next choices.

San Diego

San Diego used to be the front runner. They had a whole collection of rich businessmen behind their bid, including Univision President, Juan Carlos Rodriguez (as well some random bloke named Landon Donovan). They had a stadium plan set up, a partnership agreement on the campus of San Diego State. And they were filling in for the now-departed Chargers. They seemed to be the next big thing. And then, somehow, it fell apart. The deal with San Diego State collapsed. Then, the proposal came back together, rallying to get a ballot proposal in place for voters to approve for the sale of that same site to the ownership group for a 23,000 person soccer stadium. That proposal failed, while a competing bid for San Diego State to turn that same site into a football stadium passed. As a result, the plans for an MLS team in San Diego stalled. They aren’t dead — MLS is apparently talking with the ownership and San Diego State to share the site — but MLS to San Diego is long way off yet.

Phoenix

Phoenix is one of the few remaining bids that has a lot of potential to really take the next spot. Centered around Phoenix Rising of the USL, the team added to its investor group early last year, bringing in the Chinese Billionaire, Alex Zheng. Still, there is a good deal of work left to do. MLS apparently was not too impressed with the current stadium site of Phoenix Rising in Tempe, and Phoenix have been looking for a new stadium location. No news has been released on that location, but until something more concrete is announced, Phoenix will remain with the rest of bids: on the outside looking in.

Detroit

Detroit always looked weird alongside the likes Sacramento, Nashville, and Cincinnati. Out of those four finalists, Detroit looked like the one that really wasn’t ready to happen. Detroit’s wealthy ownership group was banking on a convoluted land swap deal to turn a half-built jail site into a stadium. And then, the Ford family came into the bid. With them, came a change in the stadium plan, moving away from building a stadium on that jail site towards hosting an MLS team in Ford Stadium, home of the Detroit Lions of the NFL. It was clearly a bid centered around the wealth of the ownership rather than the soccer. And MLS responded with a cold shoulder. “We think that in order for us to be successful in that city, we need a soccer-specific stadium. And the options that we’re presented with today are only at Ford Field,” said Garber. Without that soccer-specific stadium, MLS just isn’t interested. And, just like that, the Detroit bid went from potential front runner, to buried six feet under.

Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg

Somehow, Tampa’s bid has changed considerably, yet not really gone anywhere. Tampa’s bid was really launched by Bill Edwards. Edwards picked up the Tampa Bay Rowdies in 2013, when the team, then in the NASL, was on the verge of collapse. Edwards helped the team avoid the fate of it’s 80’s namesake and resuscitated the team, boosting attendance and eventually coming to take control of their home, Al Lang stadium. The stadium got renovated and, with the decline and collapse of the NASL, the Rowdies eventually moved to the USL. Edwards was able to get a ballot proposal to expand the stadium up to an MLS capacity of 18,000 at a cost of $80 million, a proposal which the public overwhelmingly supported. And that’s where Edwards’ part in the story seems to stop. He sold a controlling stake in the Rowdies to the Tampa Bay Rays of the MLB in the fall of last year.

It seems like Tampa’s got everything all lined up to get an MLS team. They’ve got a modestly successful lower league team. They’ve got history. They’ve got the stadium plan (even if it is a tad small). They’ve got rich owners. They are even in the biggest media market still without an MLS side. Yet, it seems like Tampa still isn’t on top of anybody’s list. I guess the existence of teams in Orlando and (eventually) Miami are keeping the city out for now. But we’ll see if that changes in the future.

Raleigh/Durham

One bid that has kind of slipped under the radar is Raleigh in North Carolina. Owner Steve Malik actually owns both the North Carolina Courage of the NWSL and North Carolina FC of the USL (formally of the NASL). Both teams are modest successes, playing to about 5,000 people in their own stadium. This is a bid that could rapidly scale into an MLS project, with plans in the works towards the development of a stadium in downtown Raleigh. However, it seems like Malik is looking a bit beyond MLS, as well. The plans for the stadium are not contingent on getting an MLS team. The expectation is that any stadium that would be built could play host to MLS, but would also be a natural home for Malik’s current professional soccer teams, as well as holding local events like local college athletics, as well as rugby and lacrosse programs.

My guess is that, for Raleigh to bump into MLS as a 30th (or later) team, there likely will need to be some tweaks to the bid. That downtown stadium likely would be a big deal towards bringing MLS to North Carolina. Getting attendance up towards or 10,000 (perhaps in that new stadium) would also go a long way. Finally, Malik could take a page out of Sacramento or Pheonix’s book and bring in some more investors. Still, a North Carolina team is still a serious possibility, though not likely for teams 28 or 29.

San Antonio

San Antonio’s bid is in rough shape given the expansion to Austin. While the Columbus/Austin deal is generally considered to be a win/win, San Antonio stands as the one loser coming out of it all. The city has been trying to jump up to MLS since 2011, with an official bid entered in 2017, like the other cities. To help strengthen their bid, they were sold to the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA. But they weren’t very happy to see MLS suddenly put a flag down in Austin, less than 90 minutes up the highway. In fact, they even considered suing, though they decided it wouldn’t work out. Here’s what Mikal Watts, a lawyer hired by a city official, had to say:

MLS’s misleading inducements and secret contractual provisions in the Columbus Crew 2013 purchase agreement do not justify a legal cause of action at this time because Bexar County’s application partner withdrew from consideration and because San Antonio could obtain a franchise in a subsequent expansion round,” he wrote. “We will revisit the strength of Bexar County’s claims if a subsequent expansion round is conducted.

So they aren’t going to sue, but they sure are upset. Even though they decided not to take legal action, a city official still called MLS’ actions “unfair, unethical, and duplicitous”.

For the time being, San Antonio is a long short, even well beyond expansion slots 28 and 29. MLS doesn’t seem to regard them very highly, so, I’m sorry to say it, San Antonio fans, but this one doesn’t seem likely to happen.

Indianapolis

The bid for Indianapolis came from the Indy Eleven of the USL, formerly one of the only relatively stable clubs in the NASL. But the bid didn’t have a stadium deal in the works, with no real plans to make it happen. As a result, the move to MLS never went anywhere. The team itself moved into an NFL stadium, and the bid has been dead since basically day one. Still, Indy XI looks to be on the up. The team has some legislation approving a new stadium pending in the state government, with that money potentially going to a new stadium regardless of whether the team jumps into MLS or not. And the team was able to announce over 20,000 tickets sold for the first game against Hartford (though weather apparently drove actual attendance well below that). The Eleven could have a future eventually moving to MLS, but it appears that they are at least set on a stable path in the lower leagues.

Charlotte

This bid came out the gates deader than Indianapolis. The ownership group, let by the exceedingly rich Marcus Smith and his family, demonstrated no understanding of soccer and got nowhere on a stadium plan. Charlotte’s hopes now have shifted to the owner of the local NFL team, the Panthers. Apparently, the owner, David Tepper, has been talking about bringing a team to Charlotte after all. Which is not news I’d look too deeply into. Look, the league is absolutely stuffed with NFL owners. It’s not hard to imagine those rich guys would start talking to each other. However, right now, there’s nowhere for a potential MLS team to play in Charlotte. MLS has shown, repeatedly, that it doesn’t want teams playing in NFL stadiums unless those stadiums were specifically built for the sport. Charlotte isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.