With the announcement that MLS will, as long suspected, be growing to at least 30 teams, now’s the perfect time for rampant speculation, treating rumor as fact and ranking the most likely expansion targets. Based on what we currently know about teams, cities, their stadium plans and their ambitions, we can put together an actually not-too-terrible list of most to least likely, even down to who gets which of the next three expansion spots to be announced. I’m also speculating that MLS will, sometime in 2021-22, announce plans to grow to 32 teams in total, meaning that there will likely be two more spots up for grabs in the next six years. Let’s do this.
- 50% – Team 28
- 30% – Team 29
- 10% – Team 30
- 10% – Next round
It’s obvious. Sacramento has to be getting in, right? Right? MLS people have been visiting Sacramento, Sacramento Republic people have been visiting MLS, the announcement for expansion on the MLS site name drops Sacramento three times and they have absolutely everything MLS asked of them ready to go. Fans? Check. Stadium? Check. Money? Large novelty cheque.
They narrowly missed out last time when Nashville and Cincinnati were announced, they’ve been constantly discussed by peoples both in-the-know and in-the-know adjacent, and really, MLS is running out of excuses. We’ve long since passed the point where Sacramento fans spoke about an MLS announcement the way Cubs fans spoke about the World Series for the better part of the last century. Sacramento even went out and strengthened its bid in the aftermath of MLS’ previous decision. It legitimately feels inevitable. I’m even willing to go out on a limb and say that the Sacramento Republic gets announced as an MLS expansion franchise before 2019 is over. Unless, that is, they remain in endless purgatory, perpetually tormented by the unfulfilled prospects of MLS.
2. St. Louis
- 30% – Team 28
- 35% – Team 29
- 25% – Team 30
- 10% – Next round
St. Louis has rocketed from outside the shortlist in 2017 to the forefront of the expansion conversation in recent months, with the community and community leaders rallying behind #MLS4THELOU. This new bid includes Jim Kavanaugh, who’s the CEO of World Wide Technology, a former MISL player, the president of both St. Louis Scott Gallagher and Saint Louis FC, and a minority owner of the St. Louis Blues. It also involves the Taylor Family, who owns Enterprise.
Kavanaugh is highly respected both in the business and soccer communities in St. Louis, while the Taylors are among the wealthiest and most recognizable families in the area. The new stadium plan they put forward has flown through the approval process compared to the issues in Miami — and, to a lesser extent, Austin — and momentum is building. They too got name dropped thrice in the latest article from MLS, and it feels like it’s another nearly done deal.
- 10% – Team 28
- 20% – Team 29
- 45% – Team 30
- 25% – Next Round
Indy is another big mover, thanks to the success of Ersal Ozdemir’s Eleven Park proposal. While it might not seem ideal at first glance that the requirement for MLS was scrapped, that actually looks to have helped the deal move through the Indiana legislature. All that’s left is for the ink to dry on Gov. Eric Holcomb’s signature after the Indiana House and Senate approved the latest version of Senate Bill 7. Should that happen, that’s Indy’s MLS stadium sorted.
As for the investors involved with the bid itself, it’s the same group that currently owns the Indy Eleven in the USL Championship and they more than meet MLS’ requirements. I’m leaning on them getting Team 30, the last to be awarded from the current round, as I don’t think they’re quite as ready to go as the top two, but they’re getting very, very close.
- 5% – Team 28
- 10% – Team 29
- 15% – Team 30
- 70% – Next round
Charlotte’s bid in 2017 fell apart pretty badly, but has been revived with Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper at the helm. When he bought the Panthers last year, there was speculation about him possibly trying to move the team, but recent talks with MLS — one of four active discussions Garber mentioned, as reported by ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle — combined with a survey sent out April 10 about bringing MLS to Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium mean there’s definitely something going on in the city on his end.
Charlotte is still a long shot, and a lot more needs to happen locally for things to happen before 2022, but these look to be the early makings of something similar to the current efforts in St. Louis.
- 5% – Team 28
- 5% – Team 29
- 5% – Team 30
- 85% – Next round
Phoenix rounds out the mathematical odds in this ranking, as their bid has quieted down in recent months. The same bid that was submitted in 2017 is still alive, as compared to Charlotte, but they’ve focused much more on USL Championship action at present.
They don’t really have their stadium situation sorted, although they have some promising ideas and their ownership group has been organized with MLS in mind. If they manage to turn their very pretty stadium renders into something concrete this summer, though, who knows?
Now, onto the other noteworthy mentions that could move into this top five with #oddz in the near future.
Raleigh is another real option for MLS in North Carolina. North Carolina FC submitted a bid in 2016 for the 2017 round, and while that didn’t really go anywhere, they actually are making moves towards construction of a stadium. They’ve bought land, they’ve released their plans and they have the ownership, but they’re asking for public money, and that’s going to be a potential political mess.
North Carolina FC owner Steve Malik thinks that 31 or 32 is a real possibility, and I don’t think he’s wrong, I just don’t think they have everything together just yet.
7. San Diego
We know that Landon Donovan has been discussing bringing another MLS team to California, and the plans for SDSU’s redevelopment of the aging SDCCU Stadium call for a new venue that might just be perfect for MLS.
The money is there, the stadium might be there, and it’s one to keep an eye on.
Detroit has fallen from inside the shortlist to a stalled effort over the past year, and things have been quiet. Too quiet.
MLS would very much like to be in Detroit, but right now there’s no one making the necessary noise which leads to that reality. They’re another city in discussions, but I’m gonna need to see some press releases with substance and a better stadium plan than Ford Field before I take them too seriously.
Louisville is building a stadium that could, without much difficulty, be expanded to capacities MLS wants. That said, MLS isn’t their primary focus, and that’s perfectly fine. In fact, it’s arguably better for their long-term survival if they’re not pitching fans on MLS in the near future, and instead working to be the best club they can be, regardless of the league in which they play.
Still, though, once 2020 gets here and their new stadium is open, they might change their tone.
10. Tampa Bay
I still think Tampa Bay could happen. With the Rays buying the Rowdies, the money and local connections are stronger than ever, and I really, really want to see that expanded Al Lang happen.
If the Rays can get their new ballpark sorted, they can then turn to getting things ready to move the Rowdies into MLS. This is one of those “if MLS goes past 32” bids, though. And there’s no way that’ll ever happen, wink.
Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.
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