The next round of MLS expansion is about to get serious, as the league publicly rolled out a process and timeline for the next phase, beyond LAFC’s entry in the league in 2018. According to the league, there are currently 10 markets around the United States interested in joining MLS, and that number could possibly rise or fall depending on which prospective ownership groups submit formal expansion applications to the league by the end of Jan. 2017.
Of note locally, San Diego was one of the 10 markets listed as interested in expansion. That should come as little surprise to those who have been following reports for the last year, with owners clearly lining up a possible bid while not coming out and holding a press conference or sending out a press release declaring their interest. While some in the national media have believed that San Diego doesn’t “really” have a local ownership group present, that’s not true, but the prospective owners have preferred to stay out of the limelight thus far.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber held a conference call with reporters on Thursday following the news of the expansion process, and was asked about the prospects for San Diego. In particular, he noted the possibly brighter MLS fortunes in the city if the NFL’s Chargers move away.
“I think it starts when an ownership group has come forward and we’ve met with them a number of times. It isn’t a group that we have been public with and it’s going to remain that way for a while,” he said. “There is obviously — there are changes that could take place in the professional sports environment in the city that I think could potentially play into whether or not San Diego is more attractive to us today than it was in the past.”
“…And should the Chargers make the decision to not remain in San Diego, 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 Sonics left. And in many ways, the Sounders were able to fill a void in sort of their professional sports landscape in that city.”
Garber was asked if the Chargers leaving San Diego would be some sort of requirement for MLS expansion, and he made it clear it was not a condition for potential expansion.
“It makes it a bit harder if the Chargers don’t leave, and that is not positioned in any way to influence anybody’s decision whatsoever. It’s just a factor that comes into play as we think about what is the competition in the market, and how could that affect a team’s success,” he explained.
But with Club Tijuana, just over the border, becoming a fixture in the regional soccer landscape, including in San Diego County, would that act as a deterrent for expansion? Garber said on the contrary, having a cross-border rivalry could bring a new dimension to the North American soccer culture.
“As it relates to what’s going on down in Tijuana, we think that’s incredibly positive,” he said. “To think that we could have a arrival down south of the border for an MLS team when they play in champion’s league, or should we ever be able to have a competition among Liga MX clubs and MLS teams and just friendly perspective, and just to get cool support of rivalry, all of those things are really big check marks for the San Diego market.”
Additionally, Garber confirmed something that seemed quite obvious: International friendlies have been strategically placed in potential MLS markets as a way of gauging interest in the local market.
“We also look at, and folks that have been around expansion for many years will know, we very carefully strategically see and test markets, potential MLS markets, with international games and U.S. men’s and women’s games. We’ve been doing that for over a decade,” Garber said.
So it’s no coincidence that the U.S. Men’s National Team is returning to San Diego early next year, for a friendly against Serbia on Jan. 29. It may be one part in the overall whole, but turnout to games like that will play a role in whether or not MLS comes to San Diego one day. It’s far from a done deal, but San Diego is certainly in the running for an MLS team in the years to come.