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MLS Expansion: Sizing up the 12 cities in the race

Who exactly has a good chance at becoming a MLS club?

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Tuesday was the big day in the Major League Soccer expansion race. Twelve markets submitted their proposals for expansion bids into the league.

As stated previously by MLS, the league will announced two expansion teams by the end of 2017 that will begin playing by the 2020 season. The two other expansion teams will be announced at a later date and the timeline for when those markets will begin their MLS runs will be determined later this year.

Applicants submitted documentation that focused on the following three areas:

1. Ownership – Description of ownership structure and financial information.

2. Stadium – Details on the proposed site, financing plan, required governmental approvals and support from public officials.

3. Financial Projections, Corporate Support and Soccer Support – Business plan, financial projections and commitment letters for stadium naming rights and jersey-front sponsor. Applicants also provided an overview of support from the soccer community.

So who are the 12 markets that want to be in the hunt for those final four (or five spots should Miami finally fall through)? Lets dive into each of them here.


Charlotte bid - stadium rendering (Credit: MANICA Architecture)

Ownership group: Marcus Smith – President and CEO of Speedway Motorsports, Inc.

Stadium plans: Includes $175 million to replace Memorial Stadium and the Grady Cole Center with a new 22,000-seat soccer facility in Charlotte's Elizabeth neighborhood. Smith and his investment group have agreed to fund half of the project.

Pros for Charlotte: Location is ideal as it bridges the gap between DC and Atlanta. Charlotte is also a market that has done well in drawing for Mexican national team games.

Cons for Charlotte: First of all, the whole issue with the state of North Carolina is in question. The state’s notorious HB2 law—the “Bathroom Bill”—saw a lot of high profile events leave the state in 2016. I struggle with thinking MLS will want to work with that in the future. Lastly on the stadium, Mecklenburg County Commissioners voted, 5-3, in favor of a public-private stadium plan, but the Charlotte City Council, the other public partner, canceled plans for a vote last Friday.


FC Cincinnati

Ownership group: Carl H. Lindner III – Carl H. Lindner III – Co-CEO of American Financial Group, Owner, Chairman & CEO of FC Cincinnati

Stadium plans: FC Cincinnati plays at Nippert Stadium on the University of Cincinnati campus and just invested $2 million to make improvements to the 35,000-seat stadium. Team officials also addressed in the application the possibility of building a soccer-only stadium.

Pros for Cincinnati: The numbers alone that this club was able to pull in at the gate in year one in the USL were amazing. Their ownership group fits the bill in terms of finances and they have plenty of sponsors to boot. Columbus being as close as it is could be a good thing in terms of rivalries go in this league.

Cons for Cincinnati: The proximity to Columbus could also be against their favor for media market and academy territory. Some question whether or not they can actually keep this momentum going at the gates too over time. Their stadium is also potentially less-ideal than most if they stay at Nippert (even with their investments in the facility).


Detroit bid - stadium rendering

Ownership group: Dan Gilbert – Owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Founder and Chairman of Quicken Loans, Inc.; Tom Gores - Owner of the Detroit Pistons, Founder, Chairman and CEO of Platinum Equity

Stadium plans: includes the pair's plans for $1 billion in development at a downtown jail site to include a 25,000-seat soccer stadium, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Pros for Detroit: The ownership group is strong with Gilbert and Gores leading the way. Their stadium location is right where MLS would want it to be in Detroit too. I also think the location of Detroit is a logical spot for MLS as it would add a rivalry spot for folks like Toronto, Montreal, Columbus and Chicago.

Cons for Detroit: The group must convince Wayne County officials it needs the Greektown site of a stalled jail project to build a $1 billion mixed-use development to get their stadium.


Indianapolis bid - stadium rendering

Ownership group: Ersal Ozdemir – Founder & CEO, Keystone Realty Group; Mickey Maurer - Chairman of the Board, National Bank of Indianapolis and IBJ Corp; Jeff Laborsky - President & CEO of Heritage; Mark Elwood - CEO of Elwood Staffing; Andy Mohr - Founder & Owner of Mohr Auto Group

Stadium plans: An stadium issue persists but new stadium figures have come in at more than $100 million, according to The Indianapolis Star.

Pros for Indy: This is one of those bids that snuck in at the final hour but I am glad it did. From a footprint perspective it is a great spot for MLS to be in as it would open up rivalries for Columbus and Chicago. The ownership group there is also a very established group in the area. If they can get their stadium locked down, they would be a great choice.

Cons for Indy: It all really comes down to their stadium in my book. They had issues a couple years ago getting public money but it appears that they are trying again.


Ownership group: John Ingram – Chairman of Ingram Industries, Inc. Board of Directors; Bill Hagerty – Former Commissioner of Economic Development for Tennessee

Stadium plans: No renderings exist of a potential MLS stadium at the Fairgrounds Nashville and that a formal plan for a stadium at the site is still about six months away. The project could cost at least $110 million according to various reports.

Pros for Nashville: Footprint, this one is certainly about footprint for MLS in the southeast. Nashville itself is a vibrant city that continues to grow with big businesses. Ingram is wealthy, which checks off the ownership box nicely. And it also sounds like the group is working with the local government to get a stadium planned out. The US and Mexican national teams have also drawn well there in the past for games too.

Cons for Nashville: The lack of a stadium plan, at least publicly does concern me for at least the first two expansion slots (they’re a dark horse candidate in my mind for the last two for what it is worth).


Phoenix - stadium rendering

Ownership group: Berke Bakay - Governor, Phoenix Rising FC, CEO, Kona Grill; Brett Johnson - Co-Chairman Phoenix Rising FC, CEO, Benevolent Capital; Mark Detmer - Board Member, Phoenix Rising FC, Managing Director, JLL; Tim Riester - Board Member, Phoenix Rising FC, CEO, RIESTER; David Rappaport - Board Member, Phoenix Rising FC, Partner, Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP

Stadium plans: Includes the group's previously announced plans for a soccer stadium and other facilities on 15.6 acres near the Tempe and Scottsdale border.

Pros for Phoenix: The bid features letters of support from more than 45 political and business leaders from the Phoenix area and a plan to privately fund the building of a new, climate-controlled, soccer-specific stadium on a 45-acre site that is under contract. MLS also invited them to bid for a team, which says something to me.

Cons for Phoenix: Dessert heat could be one thing against them in some folks eyes, not matter how climate-controlled the stadium is going to be. I think if their USL team can have better attendance going forward it will help. The stadium won’t be in the city center of Phoenix either, which could come back to bite them.


Ownership group: Steve Malik – Chairman and Owner of North Carolina FC

Stadium plans: Three alternatives for a stadium site: one is upgrading the current WakeMed Soccer Park, adding a 22,000 and two more that were undisclosed. But one, presumably, would be a site in downtown Raleigh, as North Carolina FC officials have consistently said MLS prefers an urban location and covets millennials. One rendering includes a 22,000-seat stadium with a translucent roof.

Pros for Raleigh/Durham: This market continues to be one of the nation’s most growing areas. Its a perfect dot on the map to bridge DC and Atlanta. The market has a lot of history in the game both on the men and women’s side with college soccer. Their isn’t a lot of competing professional teams (top-level) in the area either.

Cons for Raleigh/Durham: I think the obvious question, like I asked with Charlotte, is does MLS want to do business with the state of North Carolina? I think the competing bid in Charlotte is also going to hurt them a bit as the league won’t add two teams from that state in this process. Then there is the stadium plans. Until we know exactly how they’ll expand WakeMed or what these other two plans are, it is going to be tough to see them leap over some other competing bids.


Sacramento - stadium rendering

Ownership group: Kevin Nagle - Chairman and CEO, Sac Soccer & Entertainment Holdings, and Minority Owner of Sacramento Kings; Meg Whitman - Investor, Sac Soccer & Entertainment Holdings, and CEO, Hewlett Packard Enterprise; Jed York - Owner and CEO of San Francisco 49ers

Stadium plans: The team has city approval for a 20,000-plus-seat stadium, and team officials said construction could begin immediately if MLS gives Sacramento the nod.

Pros for Sacramento: The California capital has had about everything going for them since day one. Their local government is in support of their stadium plans. They have a financially stable ownership group (which just got better with the addition of Meg Whitman). And their fanbase has been stable since the launch of the Republic FC in the USL.

Cons for Sacramento: Its a small market, even by MLS standards. Throw in the fact that San Jose is just 120 miles away, that could also throw a wrench in their chances.

But on the day that they submitted their bid, they left out possibly one of the most key elements of their brand, their name. We’ve seen this in the past as new teams come into the league with an established brand of sorts. I recall talk of Seattle not going with the Sounders when they came into MLS but they ended up settling on Sounders FC in the end. Names are a big deal in MLS and ditching the Republic brand could be something that lowers their changes in a big way.

St. Louis


Ownership group: Paul Edgerley – Senior Advisor at Bain Capital, Managing Director at VantEdge Partners, part owner of Boston Celtics; Terry Matlack – Managing Director of Tortoise Capital, Partner at VantEdge Partners; Jim Kavanaugh – CEO of World Wide Technology, Founder of Saint Louis FC; Dave Peacock – Former President of Anheuser-Busch Inc., Chairman of St. Louis Sports Commission

Stadium plans: The approximately 100-page SC STL application outlines the group’s financial wherewithal and ability to fund a $140 million stadium, which is being planned just west of Union Station.

Pros for St. Louis: MLS has always looked at St. Louis as a ‘missing piece’ in their national landscape. I talk often about the dots on the map that the league looks for and St. Louis is one of those that they want, badly. On paper this ownership group is pretty strong too. If they can find a way to insert themselves into the community to compete with the MLB Cardinals, then all the better. Their proximity to Kansas City and Chicago is also very ideal for rivalries.

Cons for St. Louis: The group didn’t pledge enough up front for their stadium and then got into a word of a mess with the incoming governor of Missouri over public funding. But as long as the funding gets done and they get shovels in the group and they’ll be fine.

San Antonio

Ownership group: Spurs Sports & Entertainment

Stadium plans: An expansion planned for Toyota Field, a publicly-owned soccer stadium that seats about 8,000. Specifics on project details were not available.

Pros for San Antonio: Adding a third team to the Texas Derby will always interest folks like myself. San Antonio’s ownership group also fits the bill perfectly for MLS. They appear to have good public and government support too for this project. As long as their stadium plans from the previous ownership group are up-to-date or even better improved, then they have a great shot.

Cons for San Antonio: Some will say the stadium location isn’t great (its 12 miles north of the city center). And some will also say that the league doesn’t really need San Antonio for their national footprint - which is hard to argue against if they truly are trying to add to their map.

San Diego

San Diego bid - stadium rendering

Ownership group: Mike Stone – Founder and Managing Partner of FS Investors; Peter Seidler – Managing Partner of the San Diego Padres; Massih and Masood Tayebi – Co-Founders of the Bridgewest Group; Steve Altman – Former Vice Chairman and President of Qualcomm; Juan Carlos Rodriguez – Media executive and entrepreneur

Stadium plans: A privately-financed 30,000-seat facility on the Mission Valley site where Qualcomm Stadium sits, according to the MLS. The $200 million venue would replace Qualcomm Stadium, which would be shared with a college football team, with development of housing, retail, college facilities and a 55-acre river park also listed as part of the package.

Pros for San Diego: Who doesn’t like the weather in San Diego? All seriousness aside, the NFL’s Chargers leaving town certainly helps their cause as it is one less thing for them to compete with locally. The local government support appears to be there and it would add yet another rival to the California scene.

Cons for San Diego: Location isn’t bad for the stadium site but location of this bid may be the thing that could hurt them. Being close to two LA teams and competing with potentially a slam dunk in Sacramento is going to be tough to overcome.

Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg

Tampa Bay Rowdies

Ownership group: Bill Edwards – Owner of Tampa Bay Rowdies (USL)

Stadium plans: An $80 million renovation to Al Lang Stadium. Edwards says he will finance that construction, along with the cost of the referendum required to make improvements to the city-owned stadium.

Pros for Tampa: The market size is ideal, the stadium upgrade is also ideal. Adding in a natural rivalry for Orlando is also a great thing.

Cons for Tampa: Orlando’s proximity also could be a negative, given that their markets could overlap in key areas like academy territory. Then there is Edwards himself, who could be in legal trouble at the moment.