After Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber called Sacramento and St. Louis “front-runners” for the league’s next round of expansion, and a potential ownership group in Detroit made its intentions known Tuesday, it’s time to take a look at possible destinations of future MLS franchises.
With Sacramento expected to join the next wave of expansion, according to Garber, we’ve tasked Jeff Carlisle, Doug McIntyre, Jason Davis and Graham Parker to shed some light on the potential for expansion in San Diego, San Antonio, Detroit and St. Louis.
Detroit has been on Major League Soccer’s expansion wish list for what seems like forever, but Tuesday’s news that two billionaire NBA owners — including the Pistons‘ Tom Gores — are teaming up to bring a top-tier soccer club to the city is a game-changer.
Overnight, Detroit’s odds of landing an MLS team went from fanciful to realistic, even probable. It’s not exactly a slam dunk, at least not yet. But if Gores and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert are determined to make it happen and the league wants to be there — Garber met with the pair in Detroit on Wednesday — odds are that it will happen eventually.
The earliest Detroit could join the party is 2020; Atlanta United, Minnesota, Los Angeles FC and Miami are up first. But with MLS committed to adding four more teams beyond those, bringing the total to 28 in the next decade, Detroit is a natural fit — even if it’s not as popular a choice among neutrals as Sacramento or St. Louis.
There’s no reason MLS in Michigan can’t be a success. Detroit has a long history in the game. It hosted World Cup matches in 1994. It is one of the largest television markets without a club. It would immediately have natural rivalries with Chicago, Columbus and Toronto, all roughly four-hour drives away. And now it has serious investors armed with a plan to build a 20,000-seat downtown stadium. That’s something St. Louis would love to have.
Committed, deep-pocketed owners matter more than how “traditional” a market is these days. Atlanta, Orlando and Minnesota have proven that. Detroit could well be next.
St. Louis has been a potential MLS city for ages. In the late 2000s, it was very much in the mix for an expansion team, but the bid from area attorney Jeff Cooper never reached the level of mega-financing that MLS demanded.
The area has long been tightly connected to the game, and is big enough (20th-biggest metropolitan area in the U.S.) and passionate enough to support an MLS team. St. Louis would also provide some geographic balance and has ready-made rivals available in Kansas City and Chicago. But it could never come up with the other two legs of the MLS expansion trinity: stadium and owner.
That could be set to change, with Garber touting St. Louis as an expansion “front-runner.” The departure of the NFL’s Rams to Los Angeles has created a bit of a sports vacuum, a scenario MLS proved to be adept at exploiting in the past when Seattle’s NBA franchise relocated to Oklahoma City.
The MLS2STL Group that aims to bring an expansion team to St. Louis is composed of an impressive list of local sports leaders, including Dave Peacock, chairman of the board of directors of the St. Louis Sports Commission.
The big question is: Can the group find an investor consortium needed? Garber’s words would appear to bode well, though there is work to be done. If that’s accomplished, then the expertise of Peacock — who rallied support for a new stadium in the face of the Rams’ move — can be leveraged further, and MLS will find itself with another team in the Midwest.
One of the more fascinating fringe candidates for expansion status has to be San Diego, whose unique geographical setting brings both opportunity and challenges. When the current wave of expansion got started, you might have thought that San Diego, in Southern California’s hotbed of soccer and with its access to Mexican and Mexican-American fans, would have been a no-brainer.
But there’s a complicating factor: Club Tijuana.
One day before David Beckham announced his move to MLS on Jan. 11, 2007, a soccer club was founded in Tijuana, Mexico, which would go on to alter everything from MLS clubs’ Champions League prospects to their recruitment and development policies. Since their foundation, the Xolos, as they are known, have eliminated LA Galaxy from the CONCACAF Champions League and poached the likes of Paul Arriola from their youth development system.
The Tijuana side has drawn a steady stream of fans from across the border, and it’s perhaps that factor of a leached audience viewing live Liga MX games, as much as any other challenge, that might give potential expansion suitors pause for thought in the San Diego market.
San Antonio is a city with a host of positive attributes that are somewhat offset by a couple of problematic elements — but those problems can likely be overcome, thanks to the new involvement of one of the country’s pre-eminent sports franchises.
The city has a soccer foundation built on the work of former San Antonio Scorpions owner Gordon Hartman. He sparked interest in the sport by bringing professional soccer to San Antonio and financing the building of a soccer-specific facility. The Scorpions routinely drew some of the biggest crowds in American soccer’s lower divisions, proving the efficacy of the pro game there.
But it’s the end of the Scorpions and the beginning of San Antonio FC — under the auspices of the ownership group of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs — that puts the city into a new echelon of MLS expansion candidates. Toyota Field’s less-than-ideal location is in part made up for by the clout and expertise of Spurs Sports & Entertainment, an organization that has turned the city’s basketball team into a model across the world.
San Antonio is not the biggest market courting MLS, nor does it have the richest soccer history or a stadium deal located in a downtown region. What it does have is an exploding soccer interest, a ready-made stadium solution that can’t be taken for granted, the leadership of the NBA’s best-run franchise and, as MLS likes, natural rivalries in the making.
Source: ESPN FC