Who's who of the MLS expansion race

By Paul Kennedy

MLS announced details of the timetable for the next wave of expansion that will take the league from 24 to 28 teams. MLS commissioner Don Garber mentioned 10 markets that have expressed interest in bidding. Here's a look at how these markets stack up, who's behind their bids and what stands out about soccer in them.

Charlotte's USL presence has been limited because of stadium issues, but it has drawn huge crowds for international games that caught MLS's attention. Garber says MLS has been in discussions with a potential investor group. "It's very, very early on," he said. "So far we like what we've seen, but the process has just started there, I think."

Name Game:
Bruton Smith, the owner/CEO of NASCAR giant Speedway Motorsports and a recent NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee, is heading that ownership group along with his son, Marcus.

Number Crunching: Eleven days apart in 2015, Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium drew crowds of 61,224 for an International Champions Cup match between Chelsea and Paris St. Germain and 55,823 for the wild Mexico-Trinidad & Tobago Gold Cup game that ended in a 4-4 tie.

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Just two weeks ago, Garber was in Cincinnati to gauge interest in the Queen City, where FC Cincinnati shattered USL attendance records in its first season. "They have done a lot of things really well," Garber told the Cincinnati Enquirer. FC Cincinnati plays at Nippert Stadium, the University of Cincinnati football stadium, where it is chipping in $2 million to widen the field for 2017. Whether FC Cincinnati can find a long-term stadium solution will go a long way toward determining if it makes the cut.

Name Game: FC Cincinnati owner Carl Lindner III (who runs insurance giant American Financial Group with his brother Craig) is credited with making the club a runaway success in its first season.

Number Crunching: FC Cincinnati shattered all USL records with an average attendance of 17,296 during the regular season and a crowd of  30,187 for its playoff game at Nippert Stadium.

Media Follow: @PBrennanENQ

Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores (Platinum Equity founder) and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert (Quicken Loans founder) threw their names into the MLS expansion hat in April, proposing a Wayne County jail site in Greektown for a soccer stadium and commercial development. Said Garber, "A proposed plan to take the team down into the city, I think, speaks wonders for where Detroit is hoping to get to, which is this continuation of a city on the rise."

Name Game: Arn Tellem, vice chairman of the Pistons' Palace Sports & Entertainment and a former player agent, is spearheading the Detroit soccer effort.

Number Crunching: Amateur team Detroit City FC raised $725,500 to renovate Hamtramck's Keyworth Stadium and paid out $107,000 to their grassroots investors after averaging 5,208 fans, an NPSL attendance record, for the Boys of Rouge's first season at their new stadium.

Media Follow: @AlWillmanSports

Nashville is a late comer on the MLS expansion scene, having formed in August an MLS steering committee that includes leaders of the Nashville sports and business community. Garber says tests in the market with men's and women's national team games have been encouraging and its location in the Southeast, where MLS is still growing, is a positive. He cautioned, though, that Nashville is not as far along as some other bidders.

Name Game: Court Jeske, the CEO of the USL's Nashville SC, which will begin play in 2018, is a former MLS executive, having worked as vice president of international business for Soccer United Marketing.

Number Crunching: The crowd of 44,835 at Nissan Stadium for the Mexico-New Zealand friendly in October was the largest crowd for a non-MLS game in the last three months in the United States.

Media follow: @joeygarrison

The Triangle (Raleigh–Durham–Chapel Hill) has a population of 2 million and is one of the strongest youth and college soccer markets in the country. "We all know what the interests in soccer are in Carolina generally," said Garber. Whether House Bill 2, which critics have called "the most anti-LGBT bill in the country" will be a deterrent to an MLS bid by Raleigh/Durham and Charlotte remains to be seen. "It's not something that we've been addressing at this time," added Garber. "But clearly as we get into more detail with both groups, I am sure it will be a factor along with many, many other factors that we have to consider."

Name Game: Amid the turmoil surrounding the NASL, Carolina RailHawks owner Steve Malik announced a name change -- North Carolina FC -- and plans for a campaign to get an MLS expansion team -- and NWSL expansion team, the latter for the 2018 women's season. Whether NCFC plays in the NASL or USL in 2017 is yet to be determined.

Number Crunching: Cary's WakeMed Soccer Park has been one of the most reliable venues for support for the Women's College Cup, drawing four of the top 10 crowds for women's finals. The 2015 final drew 10,676 fans in Cary, the largest crowd in 17 years and second largest crowd ever.

Media Follow: @IanPierno

No group is as far along in the expansion process as Sacramento Republic FC. The Sacramento city council recently approved plans to build a $226 million soccer stadium at the downtown railyards. All this after three years of work by Sac Republic to galvanize city support in the California state capital. That prompted Garber, who visited Sacramento in April, to say at the time that Sacramento has “been able to check the boxes that are required” and he hoped to have a decision before outgoing mayor Kevin Johnson, the former NBA star, left office "so he can see his dream become a reality." Johnson's last full city council meeting was on Tuesday night, and the new, formalized expansion process has some supporters worried about MLS's commitment to Sacramento in the face of competition from bigger markets. But Garber insisted that he's probably talked more often with the Sac leadership than any other group.

Name Game: Sacramento Kings part-owner Ken Nagle bought a controlling interest in Sac Republic in 2014 and is the group's managing partner.

Number Crunching: Sac Republic set a new season attendance record in 2016, drawing 172,711 fans and selling out all but one USL match.

Media Follows: @Ryan_Lillis and @dakasler

St. Louis is synonymous with soccer in the United States, though it took the NFL Rams' decision to bail on St. Louis for an MLS expansion effort to pick up steam. SC STL has plans for a $200 million downtown stadium on land west of Union Station, but its viability may depend on public support. A referendum might be placed on the April ballot for St. Louis voters to decide whether to approve $80 million in public funding. “If the vote fails, it’s in many ways a referendum on behalf of the community on whether or not they want to support a plan for a stadium downtown,” Garber said. “The St. Louis ownership group needs to determine whether public support exists.”

Name Game:
Paul Edgerley, formerly of Bain Capital and currently a minority owner with both the Boston Celtics and AS Roma in Italy, serves as lead owner and chairman of SC STL and just returned from MLS Cup in Toronto.

Number Crunching:
The crowd of 43,433 for the USA-St. Vincent & The Grenadines match in November 2015 is the largest of the current World Cup qualifying cycle and is a record for a U.S. men's or women's national team game at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.

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San Antonio ranks last among the 10 MLS expansion targets in terms of the size of its television market, but it is first in terms of Hispanic television markets, which put it on MLS's radar several years ago. 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 Toyota Field, build by NASL Scorpions founder Gordon Hartman. The city of San Antonio and Bexar County split the cost of buying Toyota Field and 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, which will need to be expanded. "We are spending time with them," said Garber, "and met with them a number of times and continue to be intrigued, as we are by the activity and potential in Austin."

Name Game: Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, a longtime San Antonio political figure, is spearheading the effort to come up with funding for the Toyota Field expansion.

Number Crunching: The USA-Mexico game at the Alamodome in April 2015 drew 64,349 fans, the largest crowd for a men's home friendly in the last four years.

Media Follow: @scottbaileysabj

San Diego already has a pro soccer team -- Tijuana's popular Xolos, just across the border in Mexico. That has always deterred MLS from considering the San Diego  market, but the possible departure of the NFL Chargers could open up the market to MLS, like the Rams' move to Los Angeles did in St. Louis. "Should the Chargers make the decision to not remain in San Diego," said Garber, "the market would be more attractive to us. We take that and we believe that because we've seen what happened in Seattle when the [NBA] Sonics left."

Name Game:
Garber would not identify the San Diego investment group MLS has been talking to, but the San Diego Union-Tribune reported the group is widely believed to be headed by Mike Stone, a San Diego private equity investor and philanthropist.

Number Crunching:
Xolos' officials estimate that upward of 8,000 fans per game make their way from the San Diego area for Liga MX matches.

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Of the major television markets without an MLS team, only Detroit is larger than Tampa/St. Petersburg. The Rowdies, who will play in the USL in 2017 after leaving the NASL, entered the race last week when they announced plans to expand Al Lang Stadium, their home in St. Petersburg. The project, which calls for an expansion to 18,000 seats at a cost of $80 million, would be privately financed. It's being billed as an enhancement to the waterfront area without costing taxpayers money.

Name Game: Rowdies CEO Bill Edwards is behind the effort to bring MLS back to the Tampa/St. Petersburg area -- MLS folded the Tampa Bay Mutiny in 2001 -- and is promoting a season-ticket drive for the Rowdies' first USL season as a test of the market's support for an MLS team.

Number Crunching:
The four U.S. men's matches played at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium in the last decade have all drawn crowds of more than 20,000.

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18 comments about "Who's who of the MLS expansion race".
  1. #2 Shirt, December 16, 2016 at 11:55 a.m.

    The St. Louis stadium picture is dated. The blue and gold one is an old rendering from the proposed Rams stadium from early 2016.

    Here's an article with the new ones:

  2. David Deane, December 16, 2016 at 8:47 p.m.

    "Of the major television markets without an MLS team, only Detroit is larger than Tampa/St. Petersburg. " > This is incorrect. Tampa/St. Pete is now the largest market without an MLS team, at number 11. I think Tampa and Detroit switched places this year; Detroit dropped to number 13.

  3. David Deane, December 16, 2016 at 8:47 p.m.

  4. beautiful game, December 16, 2016 at 10:58 p.m.

    What's happening with improving the quality of the game on the pitch?

  5. aaron dutch, December 17, 2016 at 8:51 a.m.

    I w Nowozeniuk, nothing is being done to improve the quality, just bubble economics at MLS/SUM to drive the value of the league, rig USSF to have only single entity structures at the top 3 levels and crush anything that challenges that. This will be a 15 year ride which has nothing to do with quality, development or improving US Soccer/Football but making money for everyone that is on the "value" side of the trade.

  6. don Lamb replied, December 17, 2016 at 9:36 a.m.

    Have you not noticed the steady rise in level of play over the years? Have you not noticed the trend of signing younger players who are in or not yet in their prime?

  7. R2 Dad replied, December 17, 2016 at 2:55 p.m.

    Don, you mean like Mizaga, Villafana, Luis Gil, Omar Gonzalez, Palmer-Brown, Zendejas and Jack McBean? Oh wait...

  8. don Lamb replied, December 19, 2016 at 9:56 a.m.

    R2 - Of course players are going to leave the league. That is a healthy sign. Have you paid attention to the guys that are being signed? FC Dallas has signed three 15 year old in the past couple of months. They just signed a 20-year old Ecuadoran with 100 league apps. ATL has signed two serious South American prospects well before their prime. They have signed Carleton and brought an 18 year old from TJ. Even NYCFC, who people like to act like only signs old has-beens has players like Harrison, Shelton, Matarrita, etc. Do you even watch MLS? Have you heard of Adi, Acosta (DC), Accam, etc. etc. etc. The league is getting better and it's getting younger. These are inconvenient facts for people like you who like nothing more than to bitch about the league and how it's not up to your standards/expectations, which completely lack perspective.

  9. R2 Dad replied, December 19, 2016 at 11:10 a.m.

    Don, you're hilaaaaaarious. Apparently you didn't watch the MLS Cup final, which was a disaster only a koolaid-drinking Don Garber fanboi would appreciate. Go ahead, rewatch the first 5 minutes and THEN tell me how much better MLS has gotten. It's not quite Aussie rules football but close enough to make soccer fans wince a few times then turn off.

  10. don Lamb replied, December 19, 2016 at 3:23 p.m.

    You point to one game to prove your point? A final, no less? This shows that you really have no argument to make here. There is no disputing the fact that the talent level of rosters in MLS rises steadily year-to-year. In fact, this can be seen when you look at the rosters of the two teams that met in the final. One built around Lodeiro, and the other around Giovinco. The game was actually very entertaining. It was a very tense game and tactically pretty interesting. The atmosphere was electric despite horrible weather conditions. But anyway, let me try to understand your argument a little better... Are you implying that the reason MLS hasn't improved in your eyes is because it is too rough and the refereeing isn't as good as it should be? It surely seems like that is what your point is, but that has absolutely nothing to do with the rosters and how much better the talent on the field has gotten over the years. It seems like you don't really have a coherent argument against the fact but you want to argue that fact so badly for some reason so you just throw these things out there without really thinking about it. First you mentioned a handful of players who have left the league as if that is abnormal or detracts from the growth of the league, and now you are using one game to make an obscure point that, again, takes nothing at all away from how the league has grown tremendously. If you seriously don't think MLS has gotten any better, you might want to open your eyes. If you just want to continue bitching, I'm sure you won't let me stop you.

  11. R2 Dad replied, December 19, 2016 at 7:10 p.m.

    What's the point of having talented rosters, Don, if you don't get to see them play? Garber got exactly what he wanted, which is why it was such a cluster. Ratings! wank wank, Social Media! wank wank, Stars! wank wank. I thought the whole point of the playoff format was to have a soccer Superbowl to demonstrate how much the league has improved, but this has turned into a perpetual Ice Bowl minus the good halftime ads. Last I checked, officiating was still required to enable play and yes, Garber told PRO to facilitate the carnage. I think perspective is relative. You're looking at all the sunshine, marveling at the wonder; I've been on the beach a while and am in need of shade. Keep drinking the koolaid, Don--MLS is predicated on more of you and less of me. Keep in mind, when MLS requires $150M+ franchise fees the league is based on the Greater Fool theory of investing, not sound business practices. Garber has convinced Sunil that at some point he will be able to catch a falling knife. Sunil, who supposedly knows something about economics, agrees (to his great discredit). This whole pro/rel harangue is ironic--MLS already HAS relegation. When the teams fail, MLS buys out the owners and just re-juices the Ponzi scheme. And while I find your giddy cheerleading annoying, I'm just disappointed it's necessary because from where I'm standing nothing will change in youth soccer (re: professionalism) for at least another 25 years and I can't wait that long.

  12. don Lamb replied, December 19, 2016 at 8:43 p.m.

    I love watching MLS, and I see loads of talented players thriving and playing "beautiful" soccer in the league. If you do not enjoy it as it is far beneath your precious palate for the game, you still cannot deny it's growth in the US. The lengths that you go to in order to show your disdain for the league make me curious. You say that Garber wants a super physical game, when the reality is that his actions suggest otherwise. The league fully acknowledges that it has a reputation as a physical league. While not apologizing for this, they have implemented things like retroactive suspensions for hard fouls. We are also seeing more teams that stress the importance of what they do when they have the ball as more important than when they don't, which is leading to more attack-minded players. But this was a final! How did you expect Seattle to respond to Giovinco dribbling right past them every time? Do you think the Italian teams that he is used to schooling would have let him dribble on without a knock? The game was nowhere near beautiful, but it was intriguing and it did display some great players, which is not bad considering how tense and cold it was.

  13. don Lamb replied, December 19, 2016 at 8:52 p.m.

    And you say, "nothing will change in youth soccer (re: professionalism) for at least another 25 years"... How can you say that when there have been major major changes/developments very very recently with regard to youth soccer and professionalism. If we are anywhere close to the same trajectory when looking back 25 years, I think that would put us a pretty decent spot.

  14. aaron dutch, December 17, 2016 at 10:42 a.m.

    Don, that assumes progress in the U.S. has kept up with everyone else. MLS for the amount of $$ spent on players (DP's the next top 5 by team are so overpriced and each team has so little spent on development compared to any of the other top 20 leagues in the world. MLS & USSF/SUM choose not to be part of the rest of the world's system of academy model training fees & solidarity payments. MLS/SUM never wants to expose their rigged business model to any market forces. .....

  15. don Lamb replied, December 18, 2016 at 9:41 p.m.

    I know for an absolute fact that our improvement is occurring at a faster rate than just about every other country in the world (Japan comes to mind as the only one better). Your linked article concludes that, while people bitch about all sorts of stuff, the only thing that is really wrong with youth development in the US is that there is no training compensation or solidarity fees. WRONG! The current U19s clearly show that we can develop potential world class players in a system without training compensation. US clubs are set up to generate revenue as part of their model (even though many are nonprofits). This is not the case in the rest of the world where youth development is actually often subsidized local governments and by the national federation. Most foreign youth clubs scrape by very poorly and with a lot of help from the community. They need every penny they can get, and thus training compensation makes sense there. US clubs operate in a completely different way since they are, ironically, in an open market for players rather than one that is mostly geographically based. In other words, US teams have to compete as a business for players whereas clubs around the world have a set player base depending on neighborhoods. Back to the U19s... almost every player is part of a professional team, either here or in Europe. The U17s are on the same course. None of these players were produced in a system with training compensation. TC is often seen by people who think that they are hardcore as a great thing because it is how the rest of the world does it. The fact is that training compensation can introduce quite a bit of seediness around the youth game that we might be better off keeping out of youth sports altogether. Not to mention there are the issues of labor law and whatnot that surely come into play. And finally, there is a current system that is extremely far-reaching as it is, and dramatic changes just a few years ago suggest that this is NOT the time to go making more drastic decisions. The author of that article even summarizes that "the status quo may not be so bad." And that's the truth. Solidarity payments would help some aspects of youth development, but we simply need two cultural developments to take place before we are able to produce a significant percentage of the best youth prospects in the world. First, we need more parents to play soccer with their kids at home when they are very little and emphasize the game with their young children in general. Second, youth coaching must continue to become much more professional and player centered. There is clear proof among the dozens of 15-19 year olds that have developed in the US over the last 8-10 years. We have the capability of developing top class players. The depth of production is key now, and these two cultural developments are most important in reaching that goal. Fortunately, the trends point to both of these things happening.

  16. R2 Dad replied, December 19, 2016 at 12:02 a.m.

    Don, the US does an OK job up through U17. It's been well-documented our problems are from U18-U23. If you're correct, most of those U team rosters will be players in their club's starting X1 by age 21. Historically, that hasn't been the case.

  17. don Lamb replied, December 19, 2016 at 8:50 a.m.

    Yes, but "historically" doesn't matter in this case. "Historically," players these ages haven't been professionals -- at least not anything close to the bulk of teens currently on professional contracts both in MLS and abroad. Historically, there was no USL (at least not anywhere near as organized and strong as it is now). Put simply, the hole in the development set up that started at the college years is closing due to much higher levels of professionalism.

  18. aaron dutch, December 18, 2016 at 3:19 p.m.

    I'm on day 3 the 3 day La Liga Level 3 course being taught by head of La Liga Methodology & his team. The US is at least 20 years behind in coaching, teaching, tools, understanding etc.. The US spends far more money in youth then Spain but we are 10x worse, why? structure, coaching, player support

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