During the halftime broadcast of the MLS All Star game between the MLS All Stars and AS Roma came some exciting news from MLS Commissioner Don Garber. And frankly, because of the way the match was being played, this news may have trumped the second half. The news I write of is that of Garber saying by 2020, MLS will (hopefully) be expanded to 24 teams. The 24 number does not include NYCFC which will begin play in 2015. That means four more teams are in consideration of becoming a Major League Soccer team.
Currently there are nine teams in the NASL – which is the division directly below MLS in the North American soccer pyramid – and the league that could be most easily tapped for resources equaling a new MLS team. However, there is one team in USL-PRO, that I will mention later, that has ambitions on being a MLS team by 2015 or soon thereafter. That vision may have been a little too lofty before, but now after Garber’s announcement, there is more of a light at the end of their seemingly long tunnel.
The NASL consists of Atlanta (Silverbacks), Carolina (RailHawks), San Antonio (Scorpions), Tampa Bay (Rowdies), Edmonton (FC Edmonton), Twin Cities (Minnesota United FC), and Fort Lauderdale (Strikers).
USL-PRO includes Charleston (Battery), Charlotte (Eagles), Dayton (Dutch Lions), Harrisburg City (Islanders), Los Angeles (Blues), Orlando City (Orlando), Phoenix (Phoenix FC Wolves), Pittsburgh (Riverhounds), Richmond (Kickers), Rochester (Rhinos), Tampa Bay (VSI Tampa Bay FC), and Wilmington (Hammerheads).
The main criteria that Garber and MLS executives laid out for any team wanting to join the expansion of MLS are: committed owners that are backing the team financially, a stadium or approved stadium (soccer specific stadium is a bonus), market size of the metro area, and an established fan base.
My analysis on what teams have the best shot at becoming a Major League Soccer franchise by 2020:
Atlanta – The only area of the country that is currently untapped for soccer: Southeast. Atlanta, or Hotlanta to some, are the most forthright NASL team in the Southeast that could see ‘promotion’ movement to MLS. The more years the Silverbacks are around, the more the organization shapes up. A few years back the team started playing at their own soccer specific stadium, Atlanta Silverbacks Park. The 5000-seat stadium that is home to Atlanta, is able to be expanded – if the occasion need arise – to a more respectable MLS size capacity of 15,000. Eric Wynalda, a former national team member and MLSer himself, started his new role as interim head coach for Atlanta. If the team wants to be a serious contender – even with Wynalda and a SSS – for an expansion team with MLS, they need to be focusing on the quality of product and a business plan to market to the Atlanta community. Although, judging by this video, they seem to be going in the right direction.
San Antonio – The San Antonio Scorpions call Toyota Field (not to be confused with Chicago Fire’s Toyota Park) home and can brag they are one of a few NASL teams with a soccer specific stadium. The 8000-seater can (and would need to) expand to a capacity of 18,500 if the Scorpions were selected to join MLS in the next few years. San Antonio clearly have the ownership and financial backing for a Major League Soccer team, a stadium, and a fan base (according to the @Crocketteers twitter account, it has over 1150 members). The only misgiving I have of San Antonio: Texas already has two teams – one in Dallas and one in Houston. BUT, SA could be a nice place for soccer fans and to be in MLS.
Minnesota – I won’t delve too deeply into this one since I’ve already written a post on MLS in Minnesota. If you don’t have time to read through it (maybe just scan it, though), here are my points for bumping up the NASL team, Minnesota United FC, to a MLS team. They have the right owners these days. One note to point out is that the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings have – in their stadium deal – to seek out MLS expansion opportunities. I am not sure just how serious Vikings’ owner Zygi Wilf is about a soccer team playing at the new stadium in Minneapolis. That’s the tricky situation. Otherwise, MNUFC have a business plan, from what I’ve gathered. Also, the metro area of the Twin Cities has people who love soccer and they would come. They show up in droves to the National Sports Center to USA Cup every July, the biggest youth soccer tournament in the Western Hemisphere, that turns out over 15,000 spectators and players. Also, for the fall season of NASL, they introduced their new sick kits. Love them.
(As a note, I am a native Minnesotan, so it should be clear that I am ALL for a Major League Soccer team in Minnesota.)
Orlando – Orlando City is, quite possibly, the best hope for a Florida/Southeast team (for now) to become the absolute NEXT team to be in MLS. Owner Phil Rawlins has not been meek about his aspirations for Orlando City to move up to MLS, but the hang-up for Rawlins and his co-owners of the club is a soccer specific stadium. This week, however, Orlando City SC’s Rawlins has plans to address the city of Orlando for expansion plans and for a stadium in the city. Orlando already has a staunch following in the Iron Lion Firm, believed to be the biggest and most organized in USL-PRO, so bringing the fans around to the idea of Orlando City as a MLS team won’t be hard. Additionally, as this website claims, Orlando believes in MLS.
Miami – If you’ve been living under a rock, you would have no idea David Beckham is looking to start a franchise in Miami. That being said, you probably knew that. A Miami Herald writer recently wrote an ‘open letter’ to Beckham stating the best place for a MLS franchise would be in South Beach. Although the Beckham deal is long from being inked with a signature, it seems as Miami is the place to be for the former England captain. However, as this Guardian article states, the south Florida city is also in contention with other unnamed cities. I do not think this would be the best move, mainly because Orlando City is so much more deserving, but if done right – with a stadium, good business practices, reaching out to the large Cuban and Hispanic fan base that are aching for a good sports for which to root – than a Miami MLS could possibly thrive on the coast of Florida.
Those dabbing their feet in the water and could someday be in MLS, but most likely not by 2020:
Indianapolis – After being founded this year (2013), Indy Eleven looks to be making the right strides coming into the NASL. Indy hired a local – and also a former player in USMNT and MLS – man, Juergen Sommer, will most likely be playing at Indiana University’s Indianapolis campus come spring 2014 when Eleven’s team starts play, and as of June 3, there were over 4000 season ticket holders (most likely closer to 4500 in early August). And judging by the Brickyard Battalion – Indy Eleven’s supporter group – and their readiness for games, Indy looks like it could be a solid NASL team (and possibly a Major League Soccer team in the future).
Sacramento – Not only do Sacramento Republic FC have a great advert in this video – which includes ‘The Chant’ (their ‘fight song’ – if you will – with the tune coming from Battle Hymn of the Republic) – but also a good looking crest with roots from the California state flag and MLS-hardened former player-turned-coach, Preki, taking the reins as manager. If Sac Republic – which is a USL-Pro team – can produce awesome fans ala the video, and come away with one or two (or three) winning seasons, you might chalk up this capital city team as a MLS franchise.
San Diego – This one is tough to crack. San Diego is one of the biggest metro areas in the country without a MLS team, let alone an NASL or USL-Pro team. The professional team in the city is the San Diego Flash from the NPSL (National Premier Soccer League). However, the southern California city is saturated with other sports (Padres in MLB, Chargers in NFL, and multiple college teams like the San Diego State Aztecs), so even putting down roots for a lower-tiered team would be hard. On the flip side, Tijuana’s Xolos – the Liga MX team from 30 minutes away – are gaining ground with the many Mexicans and Latin Americans in the San Diego area. Additionally, there are three regular USMNT members as part of the Xolos team (Joe Corona, Edgar Castillo and Herulez Gomez); and as much as the Xolos are a Liga MX team, you can see that with the American players on the team, the Xolos are trying to appeal to Americans. Hopefully the success from Tijuana’s Xolos will translate to the foundation of a soccer team (whether it be MLS, NASL, USL-Pro, etc) in San Diego in the near future.