MLS expansion: Charlotte fast-tracked, securing coveted 30th spot

Less than 18 months after Charlotte re-emerged as an MLS candidate when Commissioner Don Garber said he was intrigued by the interest of David Tepper, who has just purchased the NFL Panthers, Tepper has an MLS team.

On Tuesday, Garber confirmed that Charlotte would be MLS's 30th team -- and begin play in 2021, a year earlier than St. Louis and Sacramento, which have also been announced as MLS expansion cities in the last five months.

St. Louis and Sacramento need to wait while they build new soccer-specific stadiums. Tepper plans on putting his MLS team in 75,523-seat Bank of America Stadium, where the Panthers play. He  bought the Panthers from founder Jerry Richardson in May 2018.

A different group -- led by Marcus Smith, CEO of Speedway Motorsports -- pushed for a Charlotte team in the 2017 MLS expansion race. It  proposed a private-public partnership for the construction of a $175 million soccer stadium, but the Charlotte bid quickly faded when the full support of Mecklenburg county commissioners and Charlotte city council members wasn't forthcoming.

As expansion headed back up, Tepper quickly moved in to snatch one of the fourth expansion spots finalized in 2019.

"You have to understand how fast this process was in Charlotte," Tepper said on Tuesday. "From Day One, it was important to get this process going. I was very much afraid that there would only be 30 teams here and I thought that Charlotte was an ideal place for MLS. When you talk about the last two entries, they were in this stage three years. This hasn't been a three-year process. This was 20 months ago or 18 months ago coming in here and saying what we're going to do and then trying to do it."

To secure the 30th spot -- what Garber has said will be the last expansion move for a while -- Tepper paid a record fee of upwards of $325 million.

With Nashville and Miami starting in 2020, Austin and now Charlotte in 2021 and St. Louis and Sacramento in 2022, this is the fastest MLS has expanded in its history. Until now, MLS has never added more than four teams over a three-year period.

MLS, which enters its 25th season in 2020, wants the new teams up and running successfully when the push to promote MLS in the context of the 2026 World Cup begins. And that will happen soon, in 2023, after the 2022 finals in Qatar end.

"We have expanded very rapidly over the last number of years," Garber said. "We have five teams, now six, coming in between now and 2022. That's a lot of on-boarding and a lot of capacity we need to manage, not the least of seven new soccer stadiums that are coming online."

Recently, most MLS expansion teams have been instant successes in their markets if not all on the field. There has been some concern about how season ticket sales have been going in Nashville, but Nashville SC CEO Ian Ayre has downplayed those worries.

Tepper, who made his fortune as a hedge-fund manager, is nothing if not ambitious. His model for Charlotte is Atlanta, which has shattered MLS attendance records since its launch in 2017

Atlanta United had 34 months to launch its team and had the attraction of a new domed stadium -- Mercedes-Benz Stadium -- in which it played. Charlotte has less than 15 months and will play in a stadium that opened in 1996 and needs renovations to accommodate soccer.

Soccer has drawn in Charlotte for big events --  International Champions Cup and Gold Cup matches -- but no history of sustained interest at the club level. The Charlotte Independence, which has no connection to Tepper's group, averaged only 1,750 fans a game in 2019, the lowest attendance of any independent team in the USL Championship.

Still, Tepper is confident.

"We're going to have one big party," he said, "all season long for soccer in Charlotte. Every game. Every game is a party."

13 comments about "MLS expansion: Charlotte fast-tracked, securing coveted 30th spot".
  1. frank schoon, December 18, 2019 at 9:13 a.m.

    Soccer is growing, but is the quality.. The more teams have the effect of watering down the quality.

    I would suggest TWO things as the league is growing... One, NO ARTIFICIAL TURF, a team with turf has no business in the MLS. Two, it is of the utmost importance for an MLS team to carry one Great Player, a flagship so to speak, like the Galaxy did with Zlatan. As you noticed effects Zlatan had on the league, attendance wise, PR wise, and esthetics wise ,demonstrating would what soccer is like is a MUST.

  2. Bob Ashpole replied, December 18, 2019 at 10:15 a.m.

    I don't think you have to worry about Charlotte. Their business plan is based on Atlanta, which leaned heavy on Argentina, for both players and coach. Between MLS and Liga MX, North America could be a big destination for S.A. players and coaches in the future.

  3. frank schoon replied, December 18, 2019 at 10:25 a.m.

    Bob, that's good. Interesting to know who their coach will be and where he's from.

    I'm waiting for an answer from the Cruyff foundation about having the book "Voetbal' written by Cruyff in Englsh. I told them that is the best book ever written by Cruyff explaining soccer. I can't believe this has never been written in English....We'll see....

  4. Paul Berry replied, December 18, 2019 at 3:12 p.m.

    The quality of MLS has improved consistently as the league has expanded, thanks to the import of young South Americans and the continued success of the home-grown program.

    It's a class above where it was five years ago. 

    As for artificial turf,  I'm glad that most teams play on grass but artificial turf is becoming common-place in places like Scotland,  Scandinavia,  The Baltic States,  Eastern Europe,  Switzerland and Austria. Teams in Serie A and Ligue 1 play on artificial pitches and the English Football League seems likely to approve them in the next couple of years.

  5. frank schoon replied, December 18, 2019 at 3:24 p.m.

    Paul, notice the countries you mentioned that you think astro turf is common place, are not great soccer countries. Even in Holland there are 4 clubs in the Eredivisie that play on Astro turf but that wil become grass real soon....Players complain to high heaven playing on this garbage. 

    Yes, the quality has improved in the MLS but that is due to the import of South American players, forwithout them this league would look like a step above college soccer quality wise......

  6. Bob Ashpole replied, December 18, 2019 at 4:50 p.m.

    There is no comparison between playing on a quality grass field and playing on artificial turf. Does the Golf pro tour play their competitions at the local putt putt course? Of course not. I spent a lifetime playing on bad fields. It isn't something I aspire too. Then there is the increased risk of injury playing on artificial turf. 

  7. Seth Vieux replied, December 18, 2019 at 6:20 p.m.

    While a perfect natural grass pitch is something special, the modern field turf surfaces are really quite nice to play on and pose no more injury risk than natural grass, possibly even less to be honest as the surface is consistent everywhere on the pitch and obviously stands up to the elements far better than natural grass. I was pretty skeptical when I started playing on high quality field turf several years ago, based on my experience playing on astro-turf as a youngster, and can tell you that skepticism vanished really quickly. I'd much rather play on modern field turf than anything else in the world except an absolutely immaculate, huge club level, natural surface. 

  8. Bob Ashpole replied, December 19, 2019 at 8:47 p.m.

    Seth, we are talking about professional soccer matches. It is absurb to play on turf instead of grass is there is any choice at all.

  9. Bob Ashpole replied, December 19, 2019 at 8:54 p.m.

    Seth, I just googled and there is at least one study of "modern" artificial turf fields which found a significantly higher rate of injury, although the injury rate was reduced when the field was refurbished. Most synthetic fields I played on got zero maintenance during their life cycle, because the local government bought into the idea that the fields were maintenance free. Yuck, yuck.  

  10. frank schoon replied, December 20, 2019 at 9:11 a.m.

    Bob, I've been looking the past two days for an Interview with a Dutch great that took place two years ago discussing the effects astro-turf  places on technique. For one thing , I myself ,notice the difference as far as shooting and when applying the outside of the foot, also the cutbacks, when giving backspin passes, the bounces,etc. To me it becomes a different game but that is only because, my style of play is very technical. This is why Ajax players who are very technial don't like it. The less skills a players has the less effect it has on him, other then the 'speed' of the ball. And ofcourse, not to mention the injury problems astro turf causes. The dutch Eredivisie is making a big effort to ban astro turf fields (4)of them. 

  11. Bob Ashpole replied, December 20, 2019 at 1:52 p.m.

    Correct, Frank, of course. Turf plays very fast, making through balls difficult to pull off. Through balls turn into a foot race and the turf makes the keeper's job easier sweeping up balls behind the back line.  

  12. Paul Berry, December 18, 2019 at 4:24 p.m.

    Russia is a great soccer country, as are Italy and France. Sweden, Austria and Switzerland are akin to MLS in terms of quality and Sweden has a better World Cup record than England, 1966 excepted. 

    As I said, the quality in MLS had not been diluted, TAM being a great idea at the time, coinciding with an economic recession in Argentina. And there are 120 home-grown players under con tract with 3 months top go before there start of the season. 

  13. frank schoon replied, December 18, 2019 at 5:06 p.m.

    Paul, Sweden has a better world cup record than England, which is not saying a hell whole of lot. We have to look at the leagues the EPL is one of the best in the world. Can you even name what the Swedish league is called. Players come to England to play not to Sweden which is a joke, and the Russian league is not much better as is the Balkan leagues. La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga and EPL rule the roost along with Ligue1. 

     To measure Russia as a great soccer country, I don't think so....Considering, historically speaking, they are such a large country  population wise,they haven never contributed anything to the game. They had one great player a goalie long ago named Yashin. In '86 Dynamo Kiev coached by Lobanovski had a decent team employing a multifunctional style of game but that's about it...
    To put Russia in the light with great soccer countries as Italy and France is a joke. I would put Sweden Austria and Switzerland about the quality of the MLS.....

    The MLS has improved its soccer not because our American talent has gotten so much better but instead MLS has decided to spend more money on FOREIGN talent. 

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