MLS expansion: Ranking the remaining potential markets

Sacramento Stadium MLS expansion 1

Major League Soccer expansion has seen the league grow in ways few could have imagined 17 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.

This week's MLS All-Star Game in Orlando will give several expansion candidate groups a chance to state their cases for securing one of the three expansion slots expected to be filled in the near future. Though league officials have stated there will be no announcement made this week on new expansion teams, it is a safe bet this week will help clear up the picture on which markets are set to fill the next three expansion slots.

When MLS announced in April that it was backing off its self-imposed 28-team expansion limit, and setting a new limit of 30 teams, it was a game-changer for a league faced with the possibility of having to reject a viable expansion market in order to hold firm at 28 teams. As much as a 30-team league seems like overkill, the continued success of the league's recent expansion teams, and the reality that multiple prospective markets have ownership groups willing to pay expansion fees north of $100 million, means MLS still has plenty of reason to keep expanding.

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April's announcement means that instead of wondering which market will land the 28th expansion spot, the focus will turn to which markets can position themselves to grab the 30th slot, with Sacramento and St. Louis now looking like near-certain options for the 28th and 29th expansion slots.

The 24-team league will expand to 26 in 2020 with the arrival of Inter Miami and Nashville SC. A new ownership group came together in Columbus to keep the Crew in business, thus helping MLS avert a PR nightmare, and the 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 as the league's 27th team.

Which markets will follow Austin into MLS? Goal takes a closer look at the leading markets in the running for what are now three available expansion slots - ranked in order of their chances of being selected by MLS:


St Louis MLS stadium rendering

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. The league's desire to add MLS was clearly a driving force behind the decision to make plans to expand to 30 teams.


Sacramento MLS Expansion 2

Three years ago Sacramento had the feel of a city with everything falling into place for an MLS expansion bid, but it was forced to stand by and watch Nashville, Cincinnati and Austin jumped 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 has gained momentum in recent months, both with the arrival of new investor and billionaire financier Ron Burkle, who in January agreed to buy a controlling stake in the Sacramento MLS expansion group. The Sacramento city council recently voted to approve the term sheet for construction of a soccer stadium, including $33 million in incentives along the way, which only bolstered Sacramento's standing as the leading candidate for the 28th expansion spot.

With Burkle on board, and with San Diego's once-promising bid having collapsed at the ballot box last November, Sacramento has put a stranglehold on the top spot on this list, and Thursday's announcement by MLS that it will expand to 30 teams all but assures that Sacramento will finally join MLS after several years of pushing to gain entry.


MLS Expansion Charlotte Stadium image

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. 

Charlotte's rise up the expansion rankings has come quickly, but we need only look at how fast Nashville went from long shot to MLS expansion team to know we have to take Charlotte seriously now as a contender for the 30th expansion slot. Members of the city's expansion group recently met with MLS, a meeting the league wasn't shy about promoting, which in itself was enough to add momentum to Charlotte's standing as a serious contender.


Las Vegas Expansion MLS Stadium Project

A year ago, Las Vegas was far from being considered a viable option for MLS expansion, but so much has changed in the past 12 months. USL side Las Vegas Lights has enjoyed a successful two years of existence at a timne when the NHL's Golden Knights have also thrived to show Las Vegas can be a pro sports town. Throw in the looming arrival of the NFL's Raiders and you see why MLS is looking at Las Vegas through a totally different lens.

Also boosting Las Vegas chances is the emergence of multiple potential ownership groups showing interest in trying to bring MLS to Sin City. Las Vegas Lights owner Brett Lashbrook has already agreed to sell his team when an investor emerges ready to make an MLS expansion push, while another potential bid could attempt to combine an MLS expansion team with the city's new NFL stadium, which is scheduled to be open in 2022. the NHL Golden Knights' owner is also reportedly interested in trying to bring an MLS team to the city, 


Phoenix MLS Expansion Stadium

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 have ticked several boxes. The group has a diverse and high-profile list of owners, including 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. 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.

Phoenix received a boost when San Diego's expansion hopes were crushed by a failed stadium vote in October of 2018, but Las Vegas' emergence as a serious contender poses a real threat to Phoenix's chances of securing one of the next three expansion spots.


Raleigh Downtown Stadium Project Graphic

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 has received a major boost recently in the wake of the unveiling of a $2 billion development project in downtown Raleigh featuring a soccer stadium. Malick has partnered with developer Kane Realty Corporation to propose the project, named Downtown South.

The new project has helped Raleigh's profile climb past some other stagnant bids, while also staying ahead of Charlotte as the leading bid in North Carolina.


Detroit MLS Expansion Ford Field

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.

Working against Detroit's chances is St. Louis' emergence as leading expansion option in the Midwest, and the growing strength of North Carolina-based interest, which could position new expansion threats in an area of the country where MLS could use a presence.


San Diego MLS Landon Donovan Expansion

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 the league preferred to deal with the Soccer City 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.

MLS commissioner Don Garber told Goal last November, after the failed stadium vote, that San Diego could still work itself back into the picture, and now that MLS has revealed plans to expand to 30 teams, that could breath new life into San Diego's chances. Throw in the recent announcement of a USL team being launched in San Diego, led by Landon Donovan and MLS expansion guru Walter Smith, and San Diego is suddenly starting to climb back up the expansion rankings.


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.


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.

At least that was the popular belief before MLS unveiled plans to expand to 30 teams. Now, with a much larger footprint than originally planned, MLS could start looking at the success of FC Cincinnati and rejuvenated market in Columbus as signs that the MIdwest is a market to cultivate and not one to stop developing. Indianapolis has a weak bid by comparison to others on this list, with no soccer-specific stadium plans in the immediate future, but Cincinnati's success and Columbus' revival could give Indianapolis the evidence it needs to start convincing city leaders that MLS is an investment worth making.