It’s been quite a while since the topic of MLS expansion has been talked about. And a lot has happened since then.
St. Louis’ bid lost a city vote back in April. The San Diego city council put the Qualcom Stadium site bid on the 2018 ballot. Charlotte looks dead in the water. And Miami looks to actually have its act together, pushing Tampa Bay a bit lower in the pecking order.
So with all of the movement, where do the prospective expansion cities stand with MLS? Well, if I had any say, here are my top four cities as we near an actual decision at the end of the year.
There is no Division II with a hotter brand than FC Cincinnati. The team exploded onto the scene last year out of nowhere. Many were caught off guard by the popularity of the team. The Ohio club shattered USL records for single game attendance (24,376) and average attendance (17,296). They also hosted 35,061 fans for a friendly against Crystal Palace last summer.
But most importantly, that success in the stands has continued into this season. FC Cincinnati is averaging 19,887 and again set the USL single-game record. The team’s shining moment came on June 28 when they hosted the Chicago Fire in the Round of 16 of the U.S. Open Cup. A staggering 32,287 people — an Open Cup record for a non-final match — showed up to see the home side dispatch the MLS team in penalty kicks in front of a national ESPN audience. The game only solidified their eventual spot in MLS.
There are currently some questions about a new stadium and where they’ll play, but with the city behind them there’s no doubt that Cincinnati is the front runner to get spot 25 or 26.
In typical hipster fashion, Sacramento was the original FC Cincinnati. The Sacramento Republic burst on the USL scene setting single-game and season attendance records. Now in their fourth season, the support for the Republic stands strong, with the team averaging 11,569 this season even as the continue to play in a “temporary” stadium near the state fairgrounds.
But cracks began to in May. Reports surfaced that Kevin Nagle placed a Sacramento bid to MLS that didn’t mention the Republic or their owners. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and the parties involved sat down and came to a resolution that put the Republic back into the MLS bid.
Still, the Republic have tremendous backing from their supporters and a stadium plan in place once MLS selects them as an expansion team. And these days, that’s worth a lot.
When the MLS expansion application deadline came and went, Nashville seemed like a very long shot, especially in the east. There was Cincinnati, Tampa Bay and St. Louis, which could have gone either way. But St. Louis lost the city vote and with Miami coming closer to fruition, Tampa Bay’s chances have been shot down. So now Nashville stands as one of the top choices in the east.
Currently, the city has no professional team, although there is the NPSL side Nashville FC. But what it lacks in current teams it makes up for in different ways.
First off, there is a plan to build a stadium at the state fairgrounds and the funding is nearly ready. So that’s a checkmark. Also, there is an appetite for soccer in the state of Tennessee. Over 47,622 packed into Nissan Stadium on July 8 for the U.S. men’s national team’s Gold Cup match against Panama. This was despite a 3:30 local kickoff time and sweltering temperatures. And MLS executives were in attendance for an audition of sorts.
Nashville’s bid has also been bolstered by the success of Atlanta United and Orlando City. Before those two teams came along, there was a perception that soccer would never work in the Southeast where American football is king. But as Atlanta and Orlando have rushed to support their respective new teams, that perception has been shattered and is no longer a hinderance for Nashville.
There’s still a long way to go for Nashville. But it’s definitely not the pipe dream that it once was.
Like Nashville, San Antonio initially faced an uphill battle towards gaining MLS expansion status. But as those above them have fallen down, the Alamo City finds itself is a very good spot.
San Antonio currently has a team, San Antonio FC, which is owned by the Spurs Sports and Entertainment, the same group that owns the San Antonio Spurs. Currently, SAFC is atop the USL Western Conference with XX points. More impressive, the team is bringing in an average of 7,241 fans this season. Sure, that pales in comparison to FC Cincinnati and Sacramento, but it’s good enough to be in the top five across all of Division II teams.
But most importantly, there’s a plan to upgrade the stadium from it’s current 8,000-seat configuration to over 18,000 if the team makes the jump to MLS. Funding isn’t quite secure yet, but if that can be done, and with the Spurs leading it feels like a fairly decent bet, everything looks good.
And because this always gets brought up when discussing San Antonio and MLS, the location is not a drawback. Everyone likes to bring up that MLS wants downtown stadiums, but that doesn’t work for San Antonio. The downtown area isn’t suited for a stadium; even the Alamodome is a mess. Most of the population is located on the north side of town, where Toyota Field is situated. Plus, it’s right next to Interstate 35 and that opens up the New Braunfels, San Marcos and Austin markets. It’s a feature not a bug. And its why San Antonio should be in MLS.