Major League Soccer expansion has seen the league grow in ways few could have imagined 15 years ago, when contraction forced the league to shrink to 10 teams, leaving its future in doubt. There are no longer questions about whether the league will survive. Those have been replaced with questions of how much more can the league grow.
The 23-team league will expand to 24 in 2019 with the arrival of Cincinnati's expansion team, followed by Miami and Nashville in 2020. A new ownership group came together in Columbus to keep the Crew in business, thus helping MLS avert a PR nightmare, and now Tuesday's announcement of former Crew owner Anthony Precourt being awarded an expansion team in Austin, Texas sets up MLS for Austin FC to begin play in 2021.
That leaves one remaining expansion slot open before MLS reaches its self-imposed limit of 28 teams. Given how many strong expansion candidate markets are still left, it's tough to see MLS sticking to its 28-team limit over the long term, but what is clear is that the league's 14-year expansion march will be put on hold once the 28th team is chosen.
That could set up a major battle for the 28th slot, with several candidates capable of putting together bids strong enough to merit inclusion. One of the leading contenders, San Diego, suffered a major blow on Tuesday when its soccer stadium initiative was defeated in a public vote, all be ensuring that MLS won't be putting a team in San Diego any time soon, though MLS commissioner Don Garber told Goal that San Diego shouldn't be ruled out as a long-term possibility.
Goal takes a look at the leading markets still in the running for that 28th spot - and potential entry beyond the 28-team mark - ranked in order of their chances of being selected by MLS:
1. ST. LOUIS
A market once thought dead as an expansion option, St. Louis has been revived after the recent emergence of a new expansion group with the financial muscle to push the mid-western city back into a prime contender position.
A group made up of family members of the founder of car rental powerhouse Enterprise have joined forces with Jim Kavanaugh, part-owner of USL side St. Louis FC and a member of the group that tried to bring MLS to St. Louis in 2017 only to have a stadium measure defeated by a public vote. The new expansion group is focused on a stadium project that wouldn't require public funding, which is a game-changing development. It is no secret that MLS has long viewed St. Louis as an important market due to the historical significance of one of the country's longest-serving soccer hotbeds, and now with no other clearcut frontrunner, St. Louis is suddenly well-positioned to jump to the front of the line.
Three years ago Sacramento had the feel of a city with everything falling into place for an MLS expansion bid, but it has been forced to stand by and watch Nashville, Cincinnati and now Austin jump ahead, leaving the California capital feeling much less like a sure bet even though it has everything MLS has asked for in a bid.
Sacramento's bid offers support from local government, an approved downtown stadium plan and even a successful and well-supported USL team owned by the expansion group. What the bid doesn't have is a deep-pocketed lead investor with the financial muscle to convince MLS to choose Sacramento. If a billionaire investor, or a big-money consortium, is found to boost Sacramento, it will become all but impossible for MLS to say no. The good news for Sacramento is that perhaps no market benefited more from the collapse of San Diego's expansion bid than the California capital.
Once considered a bit of a long shot, the owners of USL side Phoenix Rising have been working hard to build an enticing expansion project for MLS to consider and has ticked several boxes. It has a diverse and high-profile list of owners and a star player driving interest in Didier Drogba, who recently wrapped up his illustrious playing career with a run to the USL final. Phoenix also has a stadium project lined up.
What's working against Phoenix? It doesn't have much in the way of professional soccer history, though it has drawn large crowds to the area to see the U.S. and Mexican national teams (and the USMNT is returning there later this month). It is a large market, the largest among the current expansion contenders, but it's also a market loaded with professional sports, meaning more competition for dollars and eyeballs. With San Diego falling out of the race, Phoenix has received a major boost, and could jump to the top if Sacramento struggles to find a big-money investor, and MLS decides it really wants another team in the Western part of the United States.
Once considered a front-runner for an expansion team, Detroit's group has undergone some setbacks that have taken the steam out of the once-booming bid.
A finalist for an expansion spot when MLS chose to award teams to Nashville and Cincinnati, Detroit lost momentum after changing its plans for a stadium, going from building a new soccer-specific stadium to playing in Ford Field. Detroit's bid endured another recent setback with the revelation that a proposed retractable roof for Ford Field isn't a viable option . Detroit's stadium situation may not be as much of a negative as originally believed considering how Atlanta United has successfully turned playing into an NFL stadium into a positive, but the bigger obstacle to Detroit securing a team could be St. Louis' rapid emergence.
The more established of the two North Carolina-based expansion possibilities, Raleigh's bid is led by Steve Malick, owner of USL outfit North Carolina FC, who also owns an NWSL team and has strong ties with MLS.
The Raleigh bid doesn't have the financial muscle of some others and its stadium project is still a work in progress, but Malick is a respected figure in American soccer circles, giving the city a much better chance than you would expect.
When David Beckham's Miami expansion team begins play it will leave just one market that has lost an MLS team and not gotten it back in the form of Tampa. MLS commissioner Don Garber made bringing MLS back to Miami a priority, but hasn't been as publicly driven to bring MLS back to Tampa more than 15 years after the Mutiny were contracted.
The recent sale of the Tampa Bay Rowdies to the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team should improve the market's chances of gaining an MLS expansion team, but the fact that the Southeast has recently added Orlando City, Atlanta United and will soon add Miami leaves Tampa low on this list as MLS focuses its attention on other parts of the country.
Long considered a distant second to Raleigh as a potential MLS expansion market, Charlotte has received a boost since billionaire David Tepper expressed his interest in bringing an MLS team to Bank of America Stadium. Tepper recently purchased the NFL's Carolina Panthers and has been very vocal about wanting to add an MLS team.
It will take more than one excited billionaire to make Charlotte jump ahead of Raleigh, let alone all the other teams on this list, but we need only look at how quickly Nashville went from long shot to MLS expansion team to know we can't rule out Charlotte.
8. SAN DIEGO
Just one successful public stadium vote away from jumping to the top of this list, San Diego has fallen hard after seeing its soccer stadium initiative soundly defeated in last November's voting. The lopsided margin not only cost San Diego a chance at an MLS team by 2021, it may also scare away future groups from trying to bring a team to San Diego in the future.
Why is San Diego still on the list? San Diego State University's stadium project bid was successful, and that group's officials have suggested an MLS team could play in the new 35,000-seat football stadium the university intends to build. MLS officials made it clear before the election that it preferred to deal with the SoccerCity ownership group, but things can change, and we'll call it highly unlikely, though not impossible, that MLS considers putting a team in the new San Diego football stadium. That would require a new ownership group though since it seems extremely unlikely that Soccer City would join forces with the same group that dragged it through the mud during a contentious run-up to last November's stadium vote.
9. LAS VEGAS
Austin FC's confirmation for MLS arrival in 2021 was essentially the final nail in the coffin for San Antonio's chances for securing an MLS team any time soon, leaving us to consider Sin City as a potential destination for the league in the future. The USL side Las Vegas Lights enjoyed a promising first season, and the city's professional sports prospects have skyrocketed in recent years with the success of the NHL Golden Knights and the looming arrival of the NFL's Raiders. The stigma of pro teams sports not making sense in a city where sports gambling is legal has quickly faded, and MLS may just be ready to look to Las Vegas for expansion in years to come.
The recent twists and turns in MLS expansion haven't helped Indianapolis very much. FC Cincinnati's impending move to MLS, coupled with the successful saving of the Columbus Crew, means the Midwest isn't the priority it once was as MLS tries to put together its expansion plan.
Indianapolis already had a weak bid by comparison to others on this list, with a soccer-specific stadium looking like a long shot, but Cincinnati's jump to MLS, coupled with St. Louis' rejuvenated bid, has likely left Indy out in the cold.