MLS Expansion: Competition gets crazy

If the push to get into pro soccer is driven by the desire to get a seat at the negotiating table for one of the four remaining MLS expansion spots, more than a few groups are going to be disappointed. There are far more interested bidders than spots -- and that was before announcements in St. Petersburg and Raleigh on Tuesday that the Rowdies and North Carolina FC (the former RailHawks) had entered the race.

MLS expanded from 10 teams in 2005 to 20 in 2016. Atlanta United and Minnesota United are both set to begin play in 2017, and LAFC is targeted to enter MLS in 2018. David Beckham's Miami group will get the 24th team -- if it ever secures a stadium deal.

Since its successful launch in 2014, the USL's Sacramento Republic FC has been the front-runner to nail down the first of the remaining four spots to get MLS to 28 teams, and it now has approval from the Sacramento city council to build a $226 million soccer stadium in an old rail-yard.

San Antonio has been considered an expansion candidate for several years, and San Antonio FC entered the race last year when SS&E, which owns and operates the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, launched a USL team and moved it into the NASL Scorpions' Toyota Field.

But such is the speculative nature of the expansion race that the city of San Antonio and Bexar County, which split the cost of buying Toyota Field, has an agreement with SS&E that the latter will pay a "claw-back fee" -- a penalty, in essence, if no MLS team is secured for Toyota Field.

What changed the expansion landscape in 2016 is the emergence of heavy hitters backing ventures in St. Louis (SC STL representing prominent St. Louis sports owners) and Detroit (Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert).

Then out of nowhere came FC Cincinnati, which shattered all USL attendance records in its first year and recently was graced by a visit by MLS commissioner Don Garber, a sure sign its effort is being taken seriously.

San Diego, Nashville, Las Vegas, Oklahoma City, Charlotte, Phoenix, Indianapolis and Austin have also been mentioned as possibilities, putting the total of potential bidders at 15 -- for four expansion spots.
21 comments about "MLS Expansion: Competition gets crazy".
  1. Kevin Sims, December 7, 2016 at 8:26 a.m.

    Am hopeful for a team here in Charlotte, but the competition is fierce and to date facilities, promotion & attendance in Charlotte have lagged :(

  2. Quarterback TD, December 7, 2016 at 9:09 a.m.

    MLS has been doing a good job but the clubs themselves have been turning into 3rd division teams.. I had been to a few Red Bulls and NYCFC game this season and what's missing are players in their prime who really want to show the world what they can do and not has been players who is simply playing to pickup a check..

  3. Nick Prodanovich replied, December 10, 2016 at 6:57 p.m.

    MLS 3rd division, give me a break. MLS is clearly not one of the top 7 or 8 leagues in the world but it is a pretty damn good league now and is rapidly improving. As much as it pains me to say this the Red Bulls are a good team and NYCFC have some very good players. I don't agree with the Pirlo/Lampard signings. MLS is now at the point where they need younger DPs like Lodero and Giovinco, but give City a little time; it's only their 2nd year of existence.

  4. Normand Conquest, December 7, 2016 at 10:02 a.m.

    I think that the MLS is doing a good job expanding as the top league, but like other U.S. sports the pyramid is not as strong. Maybe there needs to be some comprimise where extended futility gains a team relegation.

  5. Phil Hardy, December 7, 2016 at 10:25 a.m.

    It is folly to think MLS will stop expansion at 28 teams. I fully expect it to reach 40 by 2030 or 2035. Two conferences of 20 teams each. Why would it stop?

  6. R2 Dad replied, December 7, 2016 at 10:51 a.m.

    You wouldn't. And when there are no hard and fast rules from US Soccer on implementing a timeline, there are knock-on effects that negatively impact other teams and leagues. NASL has been damaged by this, but Sunil and Garber are hell-bent on destroying the Cosmos because they refused to pay the $100M. Sunil's roll-up strategy has worked, but now we're going to be stuck with USL as division 2 and they are an MLS mini-me. There will be no pro/rel, and our youth prospects will be stuck in lame USL teams, with MLS single entity contracts. This is as bad as player employment in Liga MX, but no one is writing about this.

  7. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, December 7, 2016 at 1:16 p.m.

    The Cosmos failed because there is no interest in the NY area in minor league soccer played at a lacrosse stadium in the boonies. It wasn't down to MLS that they averaged 3,700 fans this year and lost $30m since their "rebirth". Cosmos/NASL were a flawed business model and that's what it failed.

  8. Bob Ashpole replied, December 9, 2016 at 5:01 a.m.

    R2 Dad can't you see that what has happened over the years, the expansion of MLS, is essentially the same as promotion. Relation makes no sense for a league that is expanding. Promotion- Relegation is actually a feature of a mature tiered structure, which we do not have yet in the US.

  9. Bob Ashpole replied, December 9, 2016 at 5:02 a.m.

    Spellchecked again. "Relation" should be "relegation."

  10. K Michael, December 7, 2016 at 11:31 a.m.

    R2, I fear the same thing as well, but I do believe the MLS2 sides can coexist with the independent franchises, much as they do in third/fourth divisions in Europe. Moreover, if the rumored split of USL into USL1 and USL2 goes through, I’d be in favor of the miniMLS sides (and their sparse crowds) playing in USL2 initially. Then, I hope they try pro/rel between USL1 and USL2 and then the talent can sort itself out! With the addition of the few stronger remaining NASL sides (Indy and Carolina), there would be an appropriate balance of influence between independent and MLS reserve squads.

  11. Quarterback TD, December 7, 2016 at 12:54 p.m.

    Relegations/Splits etc are not an issue as a matter of fact relegation does not make the leagues better. There have always been very poor teams in top divisions in England, Spain, France etc what make leagues better are top flight players.. I am still not really sure or care what MLS is trying to do but clubs need to get top flight players..

  12. Bill Wilson replied, December 7, 2016 at 1:39 p.m.

    They will get better players when the money is there to get them.

  13. Fire Paul Gardner Now, December 7, 2016 at 1:14 p.m.

    I can see your point with NYCFC but what Red Bulls players are washed up has beens?

  14. Bill Wilson replied, December 7, 2016 at 1:40 p.m.

    Don't get in the way of a cool story.

  15. Bill Wilson, December 7, 2016 at 1:54 p.m.

    The second tier of candidates probably don't have a chance in the 24-28 round, except maybe San Diego, and I don't see MLS adding 2 more franchises in California right now. I believe Sacramento, St. Louis and Detroit, assuming the latter two deliver on the promises, are leaders as it stands now. The final place is between San Antonio and Cincinnati and I believe Cincinnati has more willingness to force themselves into the conversation, like Sacramento did, for a number of reasons. San Antonio doesn't really have the political leadership behind a soccer bid and I don't see the Spurs doing what will need to be done financially. SA also doesn't have a downtown stadium, is not a major TV market (despite recent and projected incredible growth) and lacks the coolness factor of Austin. The Dynamo and FC Dallas are barely relevant in their markets and I suspect MLS has to ask themselves whether Texas really has a good environment for domestic soccer in general. A question I ask myself all the time as a resident.

  16. aaron dutch, December 7, 2016 at 4:40 p.m.

    R2Dad is spot on. The Cosmo's & NASL were good enough to be the 2nd division with USL not even close. If you strip the NASL teams from USL 90% of the organic USL teams can't beat NASL teams. So NASL fails and the quality of US football goes down.

  17. R2 Dad, December 8, 2016 at 2:04 p.m.

    Now Garber has come out saying the troubles NASL is having have nothing to do with MLS. If Sunil was smart, and concerned about his credibility, he would publicly denounce Garber's statements. Obviously MLS DOES greatly impact the viability of the league, when you're drawing away the healthiest clubs, and financially benefiting from it.

  18. Nick Prodanovich replied, December 10, 2016 at 7:13 p.m.

    NASL is failing due to its incompetence in operating teams not because of MLS. You should take a listen to Empire of Soccer podcasts that go deep into the backstory of the Cosmos and the continual mismanagement of their front office, lack of financial resources, overpaying players relative to their income, inability to secure a stadium and their over reliance on developing a merchandising brand rather than a soccer club.

  19. R2 Dad replied, December 11, 2016 at 3:04 p.m.

    So Cosmos are like Don Garber without the monopoly?

  20. Frank Cardone, December 11, 2016 at 8:56 a.m.

    I have been a MLS fan since day one. Put the breaks on expansion. Too many mediocre players has led to mediocre teams. Too many low salaries driving away young prospects. What is coming is more mediocrity.

  21. aaron dutch, December 11, 2016 at 10:21 a.m.

    Nick & Frank you both have strong arguments-- those are true points but if NASL had been the USSF supported second division then the certainty it would have provided would have allowed for much more stable NASL. Did NASL as a breakoff off of USL in 09-11 the root driver of the business model and Traffic being the main financial muscle? Yes of course but for the value of US soccer NASL was a solid second division much better then the 30-60 team USL that has/will be rolled out which is just the same bubble of NASL/MLS charging franchise fees that are used to fund the existing league not to improve it or drive soccer in the US. When MLS runs out of selling teams to fund itself which is about 40 in the next 10 years and USL has sold 60 then the gig is up and this whole model implodes. Its a race vs. time which could be won if the quality was value they were chasing but its not its year to year financial survival that never works as your problems get bigger over time and the investment to fix them becomes so overwhelming that it breaks the whole project. If we look at the estimated revenues - new franchise buy-ins in either MLS or USL each MLS team only has about $10-15m in revenue tops & USL only $1-3m (except for a few outliers FC Cinncy etc..) They don't make enough selling TV rights, sponsorships, product, etc.. and the value is not going up to keep up with the expansion. Without real academies (not just in the US but in Central America/Mexico/Carrib etc.. they cannot drive a quality product that market values enough to make the model sustainable. Their pipedream is the rights go up to $100m a year US/world wide (which might happen in by 2025) but with 35-40 teams its only $3m each so its back to not making a big dent. The core issue is value of product its just a good product its not a top 10 league and doesn't look like its on track for it. But MLS pays top 10 money and even top 5 for its highest paid players which is not ever going to work unless there is a new model of top DP's being paid for by sponsors only i.e NIKE buys 1 DP per team and they all wear NIKE/do promo's etc.. in the local market. (which could work and should be tried).

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