The Competition to Join MLS

Miami, Sacramento, Minneapolis lead the pack, but others also want in
by Ray Marcham   |   Friday, February 20, 2015

Major League Soccer (MLS) 2012 Season Preview

There are few times in the history of North American sports where so many cities are vying to join a league, but that’s where Major League Soccer is at right now.

And once the league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations are finally done, the race will get even more serious than it already is.

Expansion already is the main secondary storyline of the 2015 MLS season, and likely will go to the top once a CBA is agreed to (whenever that is). With Orlando City and New York City FC ready to go this season, the league will reach 20 clubs for the first time, with Atlanta and a second Los Angeles club (the replacement for Chivas USA) waiting in the wings for 2017.

It’s a long, long way from the times of contraction, when the league had to give up on Tampa Bay and Miami after the 2001 season just to stay alive. It was 10 years ago when MLS started their expansion growth with two teams out west. Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake joined the league in 2005, starting a pattern of steady growth that has seen the size of the league increase more often than not each season.

In six straight seasons, MLS added at least one club, starting with Toronto in 2007. Then came the new team in San Jose (2008), followed by Seattle (2009), Philadelphia (2010), Portland (2011), Vancouver (2011) and Montréal (2012). It was part of an aggressive growth strategy that Don Garber planned out, and in every city, the plan seemed to work.

The gap between when Montréal joined MLS in 2012 and Orlando City/NYCFC this season is the longest the league has gone without expanding since the span between the Chicago/Miami in 1998 and the RSL/Chivas USA in 2005. That will also be the longest the league will go without adding teams well into the next decade, with expansion in 2019 all but certain.

Ah, yes, the 2019 (or 2020) expansion. That’s when MLS wants to add two more clubs and get up to 24, about the top end of what is a viable size for the league. There’s no shortage of cities and groups who want to be a part of that expansion, and that’s not a bad position to be in.

Of course, everything about that expansion revolves around what happens with Miami. David Beckham is still looking for a stadium location for his proposed club, and he’s still hoping to have some kind of stadium announcement in the spring. But Garber has told Beckham that there’s no team in Miami unless there’s a stadium plan in place, preferably in or near downtown. But while the stadium at Florida International University has been put up as a temporary home for MLS as a new stadium is built, Beckham and his group are still looking at possible stadium locations, but the clock might be ticking on Beckham’s efforts. If the stadium issue isn’t settled, then Beckham might have to go to the back of the line.

If any city is perfectly situated for MLS expansion, it just might be Sacramento. The California capital has barged its way into becoming the favorite for the next round of expansion, seemingly having everything in place in all of the required areas. There’s significant public support; a city government ready to approve a new stadium in the Railyards area near downtown; an ownership group that includes the owners of the Sacramento Kings and San Francisco 49ers; and a 2014 debut season in USL Pro (now just USL) that saw sellouts not only at its 8,000-seat Bonney Field, but also at 20,000-seat Hughes Stadium. Sacramento has gone from MLS afterthought to leading expansion contender in a short time, and if no major pitfalls happen, it’s hard not to imagine MLS in the city in four years.

Then again, neither Miami nor Sacramento has two deep-pocketed groups trying to get their city into MLS, but that’s what Minneapolis has. Before Sacramento’s surge, it was Minneapolis that was seen as in the lead for an expansion club, and bringing MLS to Minnesota is seen as such a good idea that there’s competition to get that club.

But that competition is where things get tricky. One group is headed by the Wilf family and the NFL’s Vikings, and they have a new stadium being built on the old Metrodome site in downtown Minneapolis right now. Their situation is fairly similar to Atlanta, where the new MLS club will move into the new retractable dome stadium being built for the Falcons. The other is led by the NASL’s Minnesota United and its owner, Dr. Bill McGuire, with the owners of MLB’s Twins and the NBA’s Timberwolves also involved, with a possible stadium location near Target Field and the Target Center on the west side of downtown Minneapolis being sought.

That competition will have to be settled at some point, and how its settled will determine if Minneapolis gets MLS sooner or later (the league really wants to be there – it fells a gap in their Midwestern presence). The Vikings group has the stadium, but the MUFC/Twins/T-Wolves group has experience with soccer. There’s even a thought that Garber might try to convince the two groups to combine their efforts, but there’s much to do before that could happen. But, if it does happen, then Minneapolis just might be too hard to ignore for MLS to not have a team there.

So the favorites for 2019 or 2020 are Miami (if Beckham somehow gets a stadium deal), Sacramento and Minnesota. But they aren’t the only cities wanting to get into MLS, and that line is fairly long.

At front is San Antonio, where the NASL’s Scorpions are hoping to jump up into MLS. There are plans to eventually expand the Scorpions’ home stadium, Toyota Field, up to 18,000 (it currently holds just over 8,000) and have it ready for MLS if and when the league arrives. Garber has acknowledged the efforts of San Antonio, saying they have been “very active” in their efforts and communication with the league. With a stadium already in place and ready to expand, all San Antonio would need is likely extra investment to help meet expansion fees and other expenses needed to make the move up. San Antonio is also in a similar position that Portland and Salt Lake City were in (and Sacramento is in), having just the NBA as their only major league sport. That has looked good to MLS in the past.

In recent weeks, St. Louis has worked its way back into the expansion conversation, but they have a long way to go to catch up with other cities. Garber mentioned St. Louis as a possibility in his State of the League speech at the SuperDraft, and the city has tried numerous times in the past to get an MLS club. RSL almost moved to St. Louis in 2007, before funding for what became Rio Tinto Stadium was finally approved. Efforts were made for many years afterward, but the city, with such a deep soccer tradition, always came up short. But without a stadium and no known ownership group, the city will have to settle for its new USL team, St. Louis FC, for the foreseeable future.

One city that might become a wild card in the MLS expansion discussion is Indianapolis. A bill that would help fund an 18,500-seat stadium for the city’s NASL side, Indy Eleven, is working its way through the Indiana General Assembly. Indy Eleven has ownership with MLS experience, led by former Chicago President/General Manager Peter Wilt, and he still has many connections in the league. If the stadium is approved, and with a perfect location between Chicago and Columbus, then MLS will have to listen if Indianapolis comes calling, especially if Wilt expands his ownership group with MLS in mind.

The effort in Las Vegas was gathering steam, but that seems to come to a sudden halt. Garber wrote a letter to city leaders saying that an MLS team won’t be heading there any time before 2018, ending the current bid. It’s unknown if Las Vegas will try and pursue a team beyond 2018, but with the stadium issue being controversial in the city, and the proposed stadium site now being looked at for other uses, it’s becoming very unlikely that MLS will go to Las Vegas anytime soon.

Expansion will happen in 2019 or 2020. That is certain. It might even happen in 2018, if David Beckham and his Miami effort finally succeed. But there are many cities wanting in, wanting to join the MLS club, as they see the league as a priority. Compared to 13 years ago, or even 10 years ago, it’s a great position for the league to be in.

But that new CBA has to be done first. The rules for expansion, whenever it happens, will rely on what gets agreed to in those negotiations. 

Ray MARCHAM

Nationality:
USA
College:
Washington State
Club Domestic:
Portland Timbers
Club Foreign:
Arsenal
Cascadia native and a fan for as long as he can remember, Ray was brought up on the old NASL. Learned to love MLS. Wanted to play like Clive Charles. Then like Tony Adams. Only dreams, of course.
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