With no more matches until February and March, discussions about the next round of expansion seem to be all the rage these days.
Back in December, MLS commissioner Don Garber announced the league would be making the announcement of two more expansion teams later this year with two more teams being announced at a later date. Applications for expansion are due at the end of the month.
So with another round of expansion on the horizon, here’s my wishlist for the next four teams that get into the league. To make things simpler, I’m working on the assumption that Miami eventually finds a way to get into the league.
Sacramento is far and away the top city that deserves an MLS team. The city has fully supported the Sacramento Republic since it joined the United Soccer League in 2014. The team broke USL attendance records in it’s first season with 20,231 people showing up for its first game and an average attendance of 11,329 in year two. Those have since been broken by Cincinnati, but the team still garners a strong following in the city where the only “competition” is the Sacramento Kings. The team drew an average 11,526 fans in 2016, which is technically over the official capacity of its stadium.
The only negative, which is a massive nitpick, is that they’re still playing at a temporary stadium at the California State Fairgrounds; however, there is a plan in place if the team gets picked to move up to MLS to build a stadium near downtown. That stadium would fulfill MLS’ wish of teams having a downtown stadium and would be much larger than Republic’s current situation. And considering this is a nitpick shows just how strong their argument is.
This time last year no one would have considered Cincinnati a candidate to join MLS. After all, there wasn’t much of a soccer history there and the Columbus Crew were a few hours north.
But what a difference a year makes.
FC Cincinnati shattered Sacramento’s USL attendance records, setting the single-game record with 24,376 fans for a match against Orlando City B and breaking the average attendance mark with 17,296 fans per game. Over 35,000 saw the team take on Crystal Palace back in July, prompting then Crystal Palace manager Alan Pardew to support the American side.
The lone argument some people try to make with Cincinnati is that they don’t play in a soccer-specific stadium, but I don’t think this matters with this city. Nippert Stadium isn’t in downtown Cincinnati, but it is very close. It’s also big enough if this team continues to become more and more popular in the area. They do share the stadium with the Cincinnati Bearcats football team, but the owner, Carl Henry Lindner III, has close ties to the university and I’d argue that FC Cincinnati can easily outdraw the Bearcats. In fact, their moving the walls back in the corners at the stadium in order to give players more room on corner kicks.
I’m intrigued to see how this team does in year two both on the field and in the stands, but there’s really no reason to doubt that FC Cincinnati isn’t here to stay. And as long as this keeps up, they’ll be a top candidate to make the jump into MLS.
San Diego/St. Louis
I know I’m kinda going up against the rules here suggesting two teams for one spot, but it’s more of an either/or situation. Both San Diego and St. Louis have opened up as very desirable expansion opportunities now that their respective NFL teams have left for Los Angeles.
St. Louis is the better choice of the two, given its history with the game and its stadium proposal. There is however, an issue with their plan. The St. Louis group asked for $60 million from the public and given the rise of cities and states saying no to public money for stadiums, that part has fallen through. So now it’s back to the drawing board.
Meanwhile, San Diego also looks like a good spot for an expansion team with no NFL, NBA or NHL teams there and a struggling baseball team. They wouldn’t have much issues getting a following from the area; however, there’s still the issue of getting land for a stadium and getting it built, and it’s way behind St. Louis in that department.
I think St. Louis figures out a way forward with few to zero public dollars and gets put into this round of expansion while San Diego waits for the next round.
This last spot really is a toss up between San Antonio and Tampa Bay. Both of them have really strong points and both have their issues. But I’m going with San Antonio because of its stadium/stadium expansion plans and because Texas.
San Antonio doesn’t quite have the soccer history like St. Louis or Tampa Bay, but it makes up for that with a team already in place, a nice stadium with expansion possible and great ownership with the San Antonio Spurs.
The biggest plus for San Antonio is their ownership. Spurs Sports and Entertainment is a top notch group that knows how to get it done on and off the field. They have the capital to invest in the team and any transition to the top league would likely be smooth.
Folks will knock the location of the stadium because it’s not downtown; however, that’s not a solution for San Antonio. The majority of the metro population is located in the north and with the stadium right off of I-35 with great access to Austin to the north, the location actually works. Plus, the designs for expanding Toyota Field (because Toyota Stadium and Toyota Park weren’t quite enough) looks really good.
My biggest issue with the Tampa Bay Rowdies entry is just the way that stadium is going to look even after it’s expanded. It sits on a marina along the bay in St. Petersburg. The water to the east plus a road to the west makes expansion very difficult. And from the designs released, the two grandstands look to be centered on the opposite corners, which is interesting. The league probably won’t care about that, but it’s something that just rubs me the wrong way.
Again these are my picks for the next round of expansion based on what I’ve seen and felt. The league will likely feel differently as they go through the process. But no matter who gets in, there will always be this bit of good news: the league is expanding and secure, which isn’t something that could be said ten years ago.