Back in January, 12 cities formally and publicly submitted bids to MLS to be one of four new expansion teams for the league. With announcements reportedly coming sometime in 2017 and 2018 for the four teams, there has been plenty of jockeying for position to be one of the four, and in a few cases substantial developments to help or hurt their causes. With that, let’s take a look at the lay of the land at the moment. Bear in mind, some of the evidence for these rankings is based on what’s happened publicly, and some is based on a hunch. Time will tell if my gut was right.
Sometimes, it pays to be the tortoise in the race. When the bids were all announced in January, Sacramento shockingly had one of the biggest twists of all — the bid submitted did not include Sacramento Republic FC, the wildly successful USL team that was expected to be included, at all. With this development catching the team itself off guard, the MLS bid’s leader effectively claimed he had to get the bid in, even without Republic fully on board yet, lest the city lose out altogether and not submit any bid at all. In the end, it seems to have worked out, with the bid group and Republic fully coming to an agreement and all of that momentary drama dying down.
What helps Sacramento’s quest, in a trope that you’ll see repeated over and over again in these rankings, is that their MLS stadium plan is ready to go. The land is ready, the city has signed off on it, and the only thing waiting is for MLS to make it official. Once they do that, Sacramento can get planning for MLS in earnest, and the years of waiting around and times when it seemed like they could be overlooked would be behind them.
It’s risky to put Cincinnati so high for one reason: They’ve only just introduced their stadium plan. And a hint of the road ahead has been given with the ownership group of FC Cincinnati saying they could always build their stadium across the Ohio River in Northern Kentucky. They wouldn’t be the only MLS team to straddle state lines (Sporting Kansas City trains in one state and has a stadium in another), but by throwing that out straightaway they are either trying to play Ohio and Kentucky against each other, or saying they need two different areas to shoot for, thinking the road will be hard regardless.
Aside from the obvious stadium concerns, what Cincinnati has going for it is a USL phenomenon that has taken what Sacramento has done and run with it. FC Cincinnati, playing in a concrete bowl, draws in more fans than most MLS teams on a weekly basis. And while Sac Republic were boosted by a championship in their first season, FC Cincinnati were good but not great in their first season, and the fans ate it up regardless. As long as their stadium deal comes together, the track record and wealth of the Lindner family would appear to make Cincinnati a shoo-in for MLS.
3. San Diego*
San Diego’s campaign is at a precipice, with news seeming to come out daily that may or may not doom the whole project.
Here’s what’s going for it: There appears to be genuine public interest in having a team, as evidenced by the petition campaign and anecdotally, from San Diegans asking about the project every time I’m out and about. With the Chargers gone and soccer popular generally in San Diego, there is interest in a new project that could bring sports fans together in the city. And from the league’s perspective the size of the San Diego market and their publicly stated interest in bringing an MLS team to the city, and there’s a reason why SD is so high on the list.
But what’s going against it is the fight over the stadium project at Qualcomm Stadium. Is it fair to question the plan and put the brakes on fast-tracking it ASAP? Even taking out the NIMBYs and rival property developers who are trying to tank the deal for their own benefit, it is fair to question why everything is happening so quickly. But from an MLS perspective, the league has set a timeline on their own terms, and it may come to the detriment of the San Diego bid. Whether the fault would ultimately lie with the timing not working out, or with those opposed to the project exercising their weight would have to be considered in the aftermath of failure. As a result, if the stadium plan is approved this year, San Diego should get one of the four spots. If not, they’ll likely move to the back of the line.
4. San Antonio
So let’s say the stadium deals for Cincinnati and San Diego work out — they’re likely in. The race for the fourth and final spot becomes effectively bloodsport.
Truthfully, there’s not actually been a lot of chatter about San Antonio, and the jockeying for position means the fourth slot is wide open at the moment. But here’s why I am putting San Antonio in the last slot for now: They have agreements with local government on a stadium site, they have one of the best small-market professional ownership groups in the San Antonio Spurs owners backing the bid, and they have a team that currently exists and is quietly building a fanbase at the USL level.
Going against San Antonio is the fact that the state of Texas already has two MLS teams, San Antonio FC draws good but not transcendent attendance by USL standards, and the market itself is decent but not in a coveted spot where a vacuum exists geographically for MLS. The fact that their backing and stadium plan is good and there appears to be no widespread opposition to their plans locally gives them the edge here for now.
If Nashville’s USL team had started play this year instead of next year as planned, and if that had gotten off to a blazing start, then they would probably be in fourth place in these rankings. It’s just the uncertainty of the market that throws Nashville off a little bit.
What’s going for Nashville is money behind the bid and recent success stories in MLS in the south, with Orlando City and Atlanta United doing gangbusters out of the gate. Once upon a time, the south was stereotyped as NASCAR and college football fans who would scoff at soccer being an American pursuit. It seems clear that the success in Florida and Georgia has helped explode that myth, and adding a team in Tennessee, in one of the best American cities to visit, gives them a step above the rest of the pack, assuming soccer really does catch on in the area.
Here we get into the four cities that are all kind of up in the air, that could make a good case or could already be out of the reckoning. Their bids don’t seem nearly as strong as the cities above them in these rankings, but they could make a late push and grab a spot.
What’s going against Phoenix? Until this year, they couldn’t really get any traction in pro soccer in the area, with the current team tied to the bid, Phoenix Rising FC, the third try in USL in about five years for the region. To be fair, it seems that incompetence is as much to blame as anything for past failures, but there still lingers the question of whether Phoenix would really become a force as a fanbase to be attractive to MLS.
On the other hand, people love to visit and live in Arizona, and while California may be adding teams left and right, there exists a geographic hole in the rest of the Southwest that Phoenix could take advantage of. The efforts made this year to really make Phoenix Rising a success are laudable, but we’ll see if that moves the needle for MLS.
Detroit is another “maybe” city here. What they have going for them is two very rich owners fronting the bid (who are, remarkably, rival owners of the Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers) and an opportunity to set up another midwestern team, in a region where sports are very popular but MLS has not done much over the years.
What’s going against it is two main things: Public opposition to the proposed stadium site, to effectively replace a boondoggle that is an unfinished jail project, and the actual state of the market. Would an MLS team help revitalize Detroit, the major American city that has fallen furthest from its peak in the last 50 years? Would fans actually enrich the city by supporting the team, or does the economic base just no longer exist to make it truly successful? Again, the people behind this bid are rich and successful, but there appear to be considerable hoops to jump in this case.
Surprisingly, two North Carolina bids were made, and this may turn out to be one of the classic cases of both siphoning off support for the other, which in turn could doom both. The best thing for North Carolina overall is that it is in the south and is a soccer hotbed, especially around the triangle area of Raleigh/Durham. The owner, Steve Malik, owns both a healthy NASL team in North Carolina FC and has brought the Carolina Courage to the NWSL, and he has the financial might to make MLS viable.
Charlotte is a bigger market, however, and there should be concern that the popularity and success of the nearby college programs does not necessarily mean it will translate to the MLS level. Malik’s current teams are doing pretty well but not incredibly well at the gate, so is demand strong enough to make Raleigh/Durham a must for MLS? Maybe, but the jury is still out on that.
9. Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay is in a similar situation to Raleigh/Durham, with much of their bid implicitly tied to another potential MLS city, in this case Miami. Does Florida have enough interest to support three MLS teams? That’s unclear, so if Miami goes ahead, despite the many, many roadblocks over the years, then Tampa Bay may not have much of a chance at all, despite actually fielding a healthy NASL team.
10. St. Louis
St. Louis appears to be MLS’ white whale, a city coveted so much that even though voters rejected the stadium proposal outright, they haven’t said the door is completely shut. Still, unless the ownership group decides to actually fund the stadium themselves instead of asking for a public handout, a city that has one of the richest legacies in the U.S. and still produces a good proportion of professional players probably won’t have a chance of getting a team here.
As mentioned above, Charlotte is in that sweet spot of being in a market that would appear receptive to being the next Atlanta or Orlando, but that’s about all that’s going for it. Their USL team, not ultimately connected to this bid, the Charlotte Independence, has been managed poorly and has effectively been homeless for most of its existence, and the local government appears to be completely skeptical over the MLS stadium proposal. Anything can happen, and full support for a stadium plan could shoot Charlotte up the rankings, but the disorganization of this one seems to leave it near the bottom of the pack.
Indy Eleven’s bid to move up to MLS was a surprise when it was announced, but since a stadium proposal was rejected by local officials, this one is basically dead. Again, an 11th hour turn of events could revive it, but Indianapolis appears to be making up the numbers at this point.