MLS Expansion Quest Power Rankings

MLS Expansion Quest Power Rankings

Which teams are in line (for the moment) for the four slots?

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.

1. Sacramento

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.

2. Cincinnati

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.

5. Nashville

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.

6. Phoenix

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.

7. Detroit

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.

8. Raleigh/Durham

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.

11. Charlotte

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.

12. Indianapolis

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.


  • comment-avatar
    Rich 3 years

    While it is nice to see someone give San Antonio a good shot of being the 4th team, I would like to clarify a couple of things. Toyota Field already exists and was built to expand once the MLS move was in sight which is much better than having to build one from scratch. Also the Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio rivalries are strong in Texas. Adding SAFC to the MLS to build on those natural rivalries only makes sense. You did touch on the Spurs Sports Entertainment Group. They are one of the best ownership groups in all of sports. I can’t see the MLS passing on the chance to have them as a MLS ownership group.

    • comment-avatar
      J.P. 3 years

      I think San Antonio is a promising market, but FC Dallas and Houston Dynamo have relatively weak attendance rankings (especially FC Dallas). The cross state rivalries draw crowds, but I’m not sure the league will want to risk diluting a market that isn’t strong to begin with. Personally, I think the league needs to look at relocation along with expansion (although I know that will never happen with the money already spent by the current MLS clubs). Columbus would be better served as a USL market to make room for FC Cincinnati to earn a MLS club. Likewise, San Antonio would be a better MLS market and Dallas could revert to the USL.

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    James 3 years

    I am a bit confused as to why the Rowdies are so far down the list? Yes, Miami just bought the property for their stadium, but we are still years past their intended start date and years from their newly proposed timeline to start on the field. There is no proposed sites for parking, but Beckham thinks fans will want to take the terrible Miami metro system and walk over 10 blocks in 95 degree heat with 100% humidity? I hope Beckham can pull it off, but there is a serious disconnect between the ownership and how fickle Miami fans can be. *See Marlins Park*

    The Rowdies have an owner who is not only privately funding the stadium expansion at the historic Al Land stadium, but it would be one of the few in the country with a waterfront view in a downtown setting. In terms of rivalries, the two public universities in Orlando *UCF* and Tampa *USF* have a rivalry called the War on I-4 that I think soccer would also be able to tap into. Tampa and Orlando would be a powerful rivalry as both cities don’t care for one another. Not to mention Tampa and Miami’s constant back and forth over the origin of the Cuban Sandhwhich, which is a larger local issue than it sounds. While I give Miami a lot of doubt, I hope it pulls through. I just don’t see Tampa as far down on this list as proposed. The chance for a strong triangle rivalry is strong in Florida. As the third most populated state in the nation, Florida can handle three soccer teams and not just becuase it is 3 and 3. Also, just a minor adjustment, the Rowdies are in the USL, not the NASL.

  • comment-avatar
    R.J. 3 years

    Glad to see Sacramento on top as it should be, this area has the full support from the city, the community, and the fans. Heck the JC used to first house the team was sold out 8 games in a row with almost 20K in paid tickets every game. Perfect location for another west coast squad!

    • comment-avatar

      Sac is certainly a lock. I’d be shocked and appalled if the Republic weren’t admitted as team 25.

  • comment-avatar
    Alex C 3 years

    Phoenix and Sacramento should be locks. Sacramento I feel like I don’t need to explain. But the case for Phoenix is this:

    Passionate owners willing to invest in the team. A stadium plan that requires zero public funding, negates the heat issue and meets the requirements that it be in a centralized area close to public transport. Big names backing them up and building the brand. How many other USL clubs are making the papers in Europe? Selling out every match. Now the nation’s 5th largest city, 12 largest metro, and largest city and metro without a club. Farthest away from any other club of any of the other bids.

    Phoenix should be a no brainer. The way I see it, the only bids left are Sacramento, Phoenix, San Diego, San Antonio, Tampa Bay, Raleigh, Nashville and Cincinnati.

    Charlotte and St. Louis are dead. Detroit and Indianapolis never seemed to get off the ground.

    If it were up to me, Sacramento, Phoenix, Cincinnati, and either TB or Nashville (depending on their stadium plan) for your winners.

    • comment-avatar

      Definitely agree Phoenix seems to be rising to the top of the pile. We haven’t heard much here about San Antonio, Nashville or Raleigh lately but I still maintain that San Diego is a lock *IF* this thing goes to a vote in a timely manner.

    • comment-avatar
      hoojib127 3 years

      If Phoenix, San Diego, and San Antonio all get teams (a longshot, I know), they’d be the first of the 5 major North American pro sports leagues to have teams in all 10 of the country’s largest cities (in terms of purely city limits, that is).

    • comment-avatar
      J.P. 3 years

      I don’t think the St. Louis bid is “dead” quite yet. The league really wants a club there, and the owners only have to come up with $60 million to make it happen. I could a last minute scenario where the ownership group comes up the necessary funds. They are quiet at the moment, but I think they are just exploring all their options before they commit to spending the additional money.

      I think the league would also like Detroit based on the ownership group and the support that crowds that turn out at Ann Arbor when they’ve hosted bigger matches. The biggest hangup is the site location, but there’s still time to work that out and the owners have the money to speed it along if they are really determined.

  • comment-avatar
    J.P. 3 years

    If Sacramento and San Diego are “locks” it would mean that half of the next 6 expansion clubs would be located in California. If you include Miami, and strong cases for Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, and San Antonio there is a chance that the MLS will add six new teams without breaking into any new states. Call me crazy, but I think that is a horrible way to expand the game into new markets.

    As of right now, the only locations that seem ready to go are Sacramento, Phoenix, San Antonio, and Tampa Bay. Cincinnati are close, but they still don’t have a site picked out and due to local politics the best option seems to be to build it across the river in Kentucky. That’s a huge drag, especially since the atmosphere at Nippert Stadium seems electric. Another negative going against Cincinnati is the logic of having two Ohio clubs when the Crew really don’t have a strong following. The cross-state rivalry is full of potential, but I think it says something that Columbus can’t even draw the crowds that Cincinnati does.

    I think the San Antonio bid might be hurt by the fact that FC Dallas and Houston don’t draw great crowds either. Personally, I think San Antonio might be the strongest soccer market of the three, but I doubt they relocate Dallas (even though I think they should).

    I know I’m in the minority, but I can’t imagine the league gives California 3 of the next 6 expansion clubs. San Diego really isn’t the sports market that everyone makes it out to be (although I think soccer would do well). The Padres don’t draw great crowds and for an NFL team the Chargers didn’t do that well either (routinely in the bottom 10 for NFL attendance). Throw in the uncertainty of the stadium deal and a location that might go to another group, and I think the MLS should look elsewhere.

    As a club I think Phoenix has it all together. The ownership group bought a nothing team that no one heard of and in less than a year they are selling out every match (even before the legend Drogba arrived). Tonight will be a sellout and the expected temperature at kickoff is 110. Getting 7,500+ to turn out in that type of heat is no small matter. Plus, Phoenix was the only club that the league asked to submit a bid. They also have the market size and demographics on their side. The biggest drawback will be the fact that the current Phoenix teams don’t have a strong attendance track record (Cardinals being the lone exception).

    If I were making the decisions I would select Phoenix and Sacramento for Round 1 and then see what develops before making selections for round 2. I think the league needs to see what Miami does and if they keep delaying they should bump them for Tampa Bay. Assuming Miami gets it together than I think the final two clubs should be selected between San Antonio, Detroit, St. Louis, and Nashville. San Antonio and Nashville seem the best choices today, but if Detroit and St. Louis can work out their problems than I think they are the better options (MLS really really wants a club in St. Louis).

    • comment-avatar
      J.P. 3 years

      I would also include Cincinnati in the discussion for the final two clubs, however, I think the prospect of building a stadium across the river might turn some fans off. Either way, they need to figure out a location before they can be considered a serious bid.

    • comment-avatar
      hoojib127 3 years

      Of course, MLB has had *5* teams in California for nearly half a century now. The San Diego Sockers were the most popular (and successful) team in the MISL, and were presumably popular during their time in the old NASL before that, too. If MLS can tap into their legacy, they have great potential to be successful.

      • comment-avatar
        J.P. 3 years

        And of the 5 MLB teams, 3 are highly successful (Both LAs, SF), 1 is below average (San Diego), and the other is bottom of the league in terms of attendance and team value (Oakland).

        • comment-avatar
          hoojib127 3 years

          But, again, nearly 50 years. The A’s could potentially be salvaged if the Giants would swallow their pride and let them move to San Jose.

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    PS 3 years

    LA Galaxy, SJ Earthquakes, LACF, Sacramento and San Diego, but some how its a disadvantage for San Antonio because there are teams Dallas and Houston?

    • comment-avatar
      J.P. 3 years

      LA Galaxy draws great crowds, SJ above average, Houston below average, and FC Dallas is at or near the bottom every year. I agree that 5 clubs in California is ridiculous, but Texas hasn’t really proven that it’s a hotbed for soccer (although San Antonio would do better than Dallas IMO).

  • comment-avatar
    J.W. 3 years

    It is still very early to know for sure what the MLS is thinking. As far as we know they will be making there decision in December. That gives these cities another 5 months or so to get things together. Personally, I have no doubt Sacramento and Cincinnati will get the first 2 bids in December as long as Cincy gets a stadium location between now and December. As far as the next 2 bids, you got to look at Nashville. The Predators of the NHL drew HUGE numbers and fans that came from everywhere to watch them in the playoffs. If the Nashville USL team can get 8-10k or so to there games next season, I do not see how they are overlooked in round 2.
    The final spot I think will go to either Phoenix or San Antonio. Phoenix has been so sketchy with pro soccer teams over the years that even though they are showing a lot of success with Phoenix Rising this year, I would need to see another year of competition before I gave them an MLS slot. San Antonio has the very best owners group in all of pro sports in the US. It might take them some time, but if they are granted an MLS team, I have no doubt they will be hugely successful in 3-5 years of play. I do not think they will take away for FC Dallas and Houston Dynamo attendance. San Antonio is very far away from those cities geographically in Texas.
    Tampa Bay is the only city left to keep an eye out for. I personally do not like what I am seeing out of the Miami Team. I do not see how the MLS moves forward with them from what Beckham and the other owners have presented so far. I think the Miami project needs to be “scrapped” and move forward with Tampa Bay in there spot. Even though that is very unlikely, I am seeing another Miami Fusion disaster if this Miami project is given light of day.

    • comment-avatar
      hoojib127 3 years

      Granted, the league is more stable (and popular) now than it was back when the Fusion and Mutiny both folded. We’ll see what happens. I seem to be more a fan of Miami teams than most actual Florida citizens. : / I have no doubt Sacramento would be a done deal by now if the city itself wasn’t in California, and, thus, didn’t also have to contend with an elite market (L.A.), another top-tier market (Bay Area), and a second-tier market (San Diego). But if they, San Antonio, and Phoenix all get teams, MLS’ geography is going start to look *very* similar to the NBA’s.

      More than anything, I’d like to see MLS start moving away from these generic, European-style (non-)names (which, frankly, sound more like the names of businesses than sports teams). We don’t use these types of names in any other sport, so why are we making soccer an exception to this? We didn’t use them in the old NASL, either, so why are we using them now (I guarantee you that’s NOT why the league didn’t last : P)?

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