“…And there are markets now that seem to come up that weren’t even part of our thinking a year or two ago. I just had a great visit in Detroit, and we’ve been spending some time looking at that market. We’ve been having discussions with people in San Diego, discussions with people in St. Louis, and of course we remain really excited about what’s going on in Sacramento.”
– MLS Commissioner Don Garber in Q&A on SI.com last week
One of the hottest topics related to MLS is expansion, and with the league growing more seemingly every year, hope grows as the first division grows.
While San Diego has been informally mooted as a potential expansion city in the past, with MLS going to just 20, and then 24 teams, it seemed pretty unlikely the border city would join the ranks. But with MLS announcing they are considering expansion to 28 teams in the future, San Diego becomes a potential site that could vault up the rankings once more.
But is a San Diego team in MLS one day realistic? We can’t predict the future, of course, but here are some reasons why it could, and couldn’t, happen.
Why: There’s apparent interest from potential owners, judging by Garber’s comments
Why not: There’s no public indication an owner for a San Diego team exists
There are cases, as in the situation with LAFC, where the owners make no public statements lobbying for an MLS team before they are awarded a spot. If a potential San Diego team owner has very deep pockets and experience in owning either an American pro sports team or a soccer team globally, maybe a similar situation could happen in San Diego. But given the two LA teams that will be playing up the road in a couple years and no real public groundswell to lobby for San Diego, missing an owner for the new team would be the biggest obstacle.
Why: Losing the NFL’s Chargers could be an opportunity for MLS in San Diego.
Why not: The Chargers leaving town would be the latest pro team to leave town, which may not be a good sign
Although the city and fans are trying hard to keep the Chargers in San Diego, the writing appears to be on the wall regarding their departure to the LA region. If this unfortunate situation happens, only MLB’s Padres would remain as a major pro team in town. And in cities where there’s only one team in town, like Orlando, or where a major team has departed, like Seattle, MLS has taken off in a major way.
But if the Chargers leave, not only will the biggest team in town depart, but it will be the third time a major pro team has left San Diego, following the NBA’s Rockets and Clippers. Does that show that San Diego doesn’t have a strong supporter base, or that the right team just hasn’t arrived yet? That’s the $100+ million question.
Why: If Chargers leave, there could be real estate opening up for a stadium site
Why not: City of San Diego may have little interest in facilitating a new stadium project after getting burned by the NFL
Let’s put this on the table first and foremost: Qualcomm Stadium would not be a suitable venue for an MLS team. It’s old, it is not built for soccer, and it’s too big to realistically fill. Playing in a one-time NFL stadium is MLS 1.0, and it’s unlikely MLS would approve an expansion bid without a good indication that a new stadium project was feasible.
All that said, if the city really wants to revitalize the Qualcomm Stadium site and try to soften the blow of losing the Chargers, they could go all in on helping to bring a new stadium project to fruition. Or, they could feel betrayed and uninterested in helping a new team on the block, and refuse to play ball, instead demolishing the stadium and building more condos in the area. From the outside, it’s a toss-up.
Bear in mind, however, that if the city did want to help a new stadium project, it’s pretty likely football would have to be hosted there, too, since San Diego State University doesn’t have a stadium of their own and plays at Qualcomm. So a soccer-specific stadium may have to be a multi-purpose stadium in order to get a deal done.
Why: San Diego is a huge soccer city
Why not: There’s a lot to do in SD
National team players have come out of San Diego for generations now, and the multicultural aspect of the region means there are plenty of fans of Latin American, European and American soccer. San Diego routinely ranks as one of the best TV markets in the U.S. for big soccer games like the World Cup, and the popularity of playing the game, both on the youth and adult levels, indicates the interest in the sport, no question.
All that said, there’s a lot to do in the area. Beaches, mountains, desert, day trips to Tijuana or LA, nightlife, concerts, bars, restaurants — there’s pretty much something for everyone here. The Padres (and even the mighty Chargers) have struggled at times to draw fans into the stadium on a regular basis. If MLS came to town, would there be consistent support to draw the atmosphere the league craves? That is another big $100+ million question.
All in all, at this stage it’s unclear if San Diego is a serious contender for an MLS expansion team. It does not appear to be a slam dunk candidate, but MLS has been doing fantastically well in selecting cities in recent years, and even one-time question marks like Orlando City have been unqualified successes. Time will tell if a third MLS team will come to Southern California, but if it does, it will be fascinating to follow.