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A Tale of Several Cities Looking For MLS Expansion

A couple of weeks ago St. Louis re-entered the fray for MLS expansion, with the St. Louis based Taylor family, owners of Enterprise rent-a-car, and Jim Kavanaugh of World Wide Technology taking on the task of financing the pursuit.

There are two spots available as the league expands to 28, with a dozen cities in the fray. Here’s where some of those stand.

We’ll start with the fact that the league now has 23 teams, with Cincinnati, Nashville and Miami having already been awarded expansion teams, all to begin play by 2021. The league wants to get to 28 teams by 2022, and then apparently won’t grow again for the foreseeable future.

The owner of Columbus Crew tried to pull off what Stan Kroenke did with the NFL Rams in St. Louis; hurt the market so that he could relocate to a city more to his liking; Austin, Texas.  However, after fans rose up, MLS stood up to him, and under pressure from the league owner Anthony Precourt reportedly is set to sell the team to a group led by Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, who would keep it in Columbus.

The league still likes Austin and Precourt’s stadium plan there, and, absent an unforeseen bump in the road, he’ll get one of the expansion franchises. MLS issued a statement last week on the heels of the report that Haslam would purchase the Columbus franchise which read “While timing for Austin FC is still to be finalized, we are confident that the team will begin play no later than 2021 at the new, privately financed stadium and soccer park at McKalla Place.”

With the assumption that they would get the Crew out of Columbus, Austin never bid for an expansion franchise, so the league is doing an end around on the other cities bidding. One of those is San Antonio, and that group is upset; There would be no sense in MLS having franchises in Austin AND San Antonio. Precourt getting his franchise in Austin knocks one St. Louis competitor out of the mix.

With Austin getting a franchise, there’s really ONE expansion franchise available, and perhaps ten cities trying to get it.  At one time, MLS commissioner Don Garber bestowed front-runner status on Detroit, but their $1 billion soccer-specific stadium plans fell through, and they proposed retro-fitting Ford Field, the domed home of the Lions, and placing a retractable roof on it. Late last week, the Detroit group sent a letter to Garber that said retro-fitting Ford Field isn’t going to happen, so Detroit…at least at the moment…won’t have a suitable stadium to play in.

Sacramento has an ownership problem; MLS wants deep pocketed ownership groups. The Taylor’s are well heeled. The league already knows Precourt as owner in Columbus. The Detroit group includes billionaire Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores, along with former agent Arn Tellem.

Last week the Sacramento Bee noted current ownership group “Republic FC has been searching for a lead investor for nearly a year who could lead its expansion effort after being told by MLS officials that its ownership group needed more financial weight.” Whether or not Sacramento can come up with that financial clout after a year of searching, we don’t know.  But the fact they don’t have wealthy ownership now certainly sets them back.

The owners of the USL (same league as Saint Louis FC) franchise in Phoenix want an MLS team, and hosted MLS executives at their playoff game Friday. Phoenix is the biggest market trying to get an expansion team, and has Chinese billionaire hotel magnate Alex Zheng as part of their ownership group. Phoenix has a deal with Goldman-Sachs to finance a stadium if they’re awarded a team. They would appear to have all their ducks in a row.

Charlotte, Raleigh and Tampa Bay are bidding, but commissioner Garber recently said that with Miami and Nashville joining the league as expansion teams soon, in addition to Orlando and Atlanta, “It’s a hotbed of soccer in the grassroots level. There’s enormous energy and diversity that exists in this part of the country. I think we’re probably done expanding in the southeast for a little while, but we’re feeling pretty good about it.”

Indianapolis has been brought up, but there doesn’t seem to be any reported momentum for a franchise to be place there.

San Diego’s group is trying to get a stadium built, and citizens will vote on spending public money in November.  At the moment, the polls are saying that only 32 percent of voters favor the soccer stadium, which would be placed at the site of QUALCOMM Stadium, where the Chargers played. For the measure to pass, it must get at least 50 percent of the vote. San Diego State is trying to buy that land to build a new football stadium for the Aztecs and expand its campus. That will be voted on, too and currently leads in the polls with 57 percent saying they support it. If both measures get to 50 percent, the one with the most votes wins. So, at the moment, San Diego seems to be in the same spot St. Louis was in with MLS last year, when the public voted down a stadium in the city.

With an ownership group with deep St. Louis roots that wants to build a stadium, along with a large market that’s proven to be a great sports town, and one of the great, historic soccer cities in America, St. Louis seems like a logical spot for the 28th team. There’s a long way to go, but the slip ups of other cities might open the door for #MLS4THELOU

–Randy

More: Enterprise’s Taylor Family Are Leading STL Back to Potential MLS Future