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Orlando City Shows U.S. Southeast Ripe for Major League Soccer Expansion

Major League Soccer has expanded throughout various regions of the United States over 20 seasons. With one expansion team thriving and another beginning play in 2017, there are still more possibilities for further southern incursion by MLS.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The South is a region known for humidity and the type of football that is played without a goalkeeper.

It’s also a region that may be of growing interest for Major League Soccer.

As the league grows, there has been representation in all sections of the United States. What initially began as a concentration of teams mostly in the West and Northeast has now grown into a moderate distribution of franchises throughout the country. With the addition of Minnesota United FC in 2018, the league continues to work towards that goal. At the highest level of American professional soccer, the South is still largely untapped, although the league is moving into Atlanta in 2017.

While MLS hasn't yet capitalized on these locations, the NASL has. In May, the league announced the addition of Miami FC, and this week the NASL announced that a team backed by NBA superstar Carmelo Anthony is headed to Puerto Rico. The two teams join the NASL’s six other southern franchises, many in cities hoping to get an MLS team as well.

One city that would like to jump to Major League Soccer is Charlotte, just over two hours from where the NASL's Carolina Railhawks play (in Cary, near Raleigh). While the USL’s Charlotte Independence are playing their first season, founder Jim McPhilliamy is following the path that Orlando City SC paved on their way to the MLS. From the unconventional advertising campaigns, focused on the 18-35 age demographic, to even the delay in stadium construction, there are some keen similarities between Charlotte and Orlando.

If Charlotte wants to pull off what Orlando did, however, attendance will have to grow over time. Charlotte’s other pro soccer team, the Eagles, struggled with getting fans to the stadium before being dropped to USL Premier Development League in 2014. What is working for the city is their ability to sell well for big soccer events. Last year, 69,364 fans attended an August 2 friendly between Liverpool and AC Milan. Charlotte will also get the CONCACAF Gold Cup on July 15 and the International Champions Cup between Paris St. Germain and Chelsea.

Whether or not MLS comes to the Queen City, there are still plenty of southern options for the league. Miami’s inability to find a stadium site has hindered the chance of them getting a team by their projected year of 2017, but they remain a player due to the name value of David Beckham.

Jacksonville has struggled supporting American pro football, but has shown they can support soccer, breaking the NASL’s modern-day attendance record with 16,164 fans for the Armada’s April 3 season-opening victory over FC Edmonton. The city also had 52,033 fans attend a U.S.-Nigeria friendly last year and 44,438 attended a U.S.-Ireland friendly in 2012.

Much like the the marketing taking place in soccer cities throughout the United States, MLS’s key to building the game in the South will be to capitalize on the cities that show interest in sports and have median ages that fall into the important 18-35 age demographic. Jacksonville and Charlotte have median ages under 35 and are thriving cities. With a younger demographic that is watching domestic and international soccer, the South is giving rise to another sport.

The south has shown it can appreciate and support the beautiful game just as well as other part of the United States. When looking for areas to expand in, MLS needs look no further than below the Mason-Dixon line.