Expansion: MLS tours Charlotte ahead of key meeting

Five prospective MLS expansion groups will have had the opportunity to show off the soccer support in their markets during the Gold Cup. Others like Detroit, where Roma and PSG meet at Comerica Park on Wednesday, will host international friendlies. Showing off soccer this year in Charlotte isn't as easy for local soccer promoters.

Without a prominent pro team -- the USL's Independence is last among independent clubs in attendance (less than 1,600 fans a game) -- and no Gold Cup or International Champions Cup matches in town this summer -- it drew big ICC crowds in recent years -- backers of Charlotte's MLS expansion bid had to improvise, holding a “Power the Pitch Rally” in First Ward Park on Tuesday for MLS deputy commissioner Mark Abbott, the league's point person on expansion and in North Carolina for visits to Charlotte and Raleigh.

MLS expansion candidates
(Gold Cup crowds):

San Diego: 53,133.
San Antonio: 54,776.
: 47,622.
Tampa: 23,368.
Phoenix: July 20 DH

Abbott's trip to Charlotte came two days before a key meeting of Charlotte's economic development committee to review the Charlotte stadium plan proposed by Marcus Smith, CEO of Speedway Motorsports -- a private-public partnership for the construction of a $175 million soccer stadium.

The original deal called for the county and city to each contribute $43.75 million -- half of the $175 million -- and the county front much of Smith's share and then be repaid in annual lease payments of $4.25 million.

In January, Mecklenburg county commissioners voted, 5-3, in favor of the plan but Charlotte's city council canceled plans for a vote, insisting it would not be rushed into making a commitment.

In June, county commissioners voted to defer until August a decision on plans to include stadium funds in the county's current budget, indicating their reluctance to go forward if their city colleagues didn't contribute to the stadium effort.

Those same county commissioners backed out of a meeting with Abbott over what they said were concerns about whether such a meeting had to be public. Then on Monday, the city council pulled out of meeting its out-of-town guest.

The Charlotte bidding group MLS4CLT downplayed the turn of events that left no elected officials on hand for Tuesday's rally. Indeed, Charlotte has been farther along than many other MLS expansion bidders in terms of efforts to seek out public stadium funding, but local politics slowed initial momentum as fall elections are on the horizon.

On Tuesday, Abbott went out of his way to praise the potential stadium site at the old American Legion Memorial Stadium (home of the old ASL Carolina Lightnin') in the Elizabeth section of Charlotte and its location not far from the growing Uptown area.

Abbott met with Mecklenburg County manager Dena Diorio and later in the year should return to meet with elected officials. On Wednesday, he'll be in Raleigh, where a march will be held in the downtown area and end with a rally at City Market.

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