Major League Soccer is at a crucial time in its young history.
We're over a month and a half into the league's 21st season, and while we continue to celebrate just how far MLS has come since 1996, there's been plenty of focus over the past year about where the league will be heading -- literally, where is MLS going next?
Expansion is the hot topic of 2016. Next season, Atlanta and Minnesota (as of right now) will join the league, bringing the total number of teams up to 22. And LAFC and Miami are scheduled to join in 2018, according to the league. That would bring us to 24, which Don Garber many years ago stated as the league's goal by 2020. Since then, Orlando and New York City FC have joined the league, while Chivas USA (may it rest in peace with Tampa Bay and the original Miami team) folded after the 2014 season.
Cities across the country are preparing and fighting each other to join the league during the next round of expansion, which Garber said on Thursday will start in 2020, and last week at a block party in Sacramento he stated the league is currently committed to eventually expanding to 28 teams.
So who's in the running for those final four spots? Well, a lot of places.
- St. Louis
- San Antonio
- San Diego
Sacramento Republic FC is built for MLS. Garber has said it before, and he said it again last week: it's not a matter of if, but when, Sacramento gets a team in MLS.
Pros: The Republic have a great fan base, selling out Bonney Field (approx. 12K seating) each week. They already have a deal ready to build a new downtown facility at the Railyards in Sacramento. And they have an ownership group that MLS can't say no to, with Kevin Nagle and representatives from the Sacramento Kings and San Francisco 49ers, among many others.
While they'd love to be in the league sooner rather than later, their new stadium could be ready in time for the 2019 season, which would make them the next team to join after LAFC and Miami, at No. 25.
Cons: MLS isn't desperate to put another team in California right now, and being in Earthquakes territory doesn't help much either.
That won't stop them, though.
St. Louis is a city drawing plenty of attention from MLS, and is sure to be mentioned a lot in the coming years.
St. Louis FC, a USL club which launched last season, is drawing nice-sized crowds so far, and with the Rams off to Los Angeles, the city of St. Louis couldn't be more prepared to help bring the beautiful game -- at the major league level -- to the city with an MLS club.
Pros: There's space on the riverfront near downtown to make a stadium happen, which of course would be a big positive for MLS. Fan support is great for the Cardinals, and could be for soccer too with the NFL out of town (drawing 48,000 to a USMNT qualifier at Busch Stadium last November wasn't a bad sign, either).
Cons: St. Louis might not have the ownership or stadium lined up right now that would make them a more attractive option than San Antonio, but given that MLS would like to expand their footprint in the Midwest, they have plenty of time to make St. Louis a reality.
San Antonio also boasts a great option for the league moving forward.
Pros: The team has new ownership in place after a group led by the San Antonio Spurs bought out the NASL club during the off-season and reset them in the USL, and their stadium be can expanded upon to fit MLS standards, if necessary. San Antonio is a big city (about 1.5 million population) in a state more than big enough to support three professional clubs.
Cons: MLS is at a point where it can begin to be picky with who it lets into the league, and maybe putting a third team in Texas isn't near the top of the list right now, as they look to put themselves in more untapped markets.
Louisville is very much taking the Orlando City route when it comes to expansion.
Pros: They started a team with Orlando support in 2014, drew great crowds last season, and have continued those efforts this season. The club is working with the city to secure a stadium deal in hopes of drawing in MLS. The lack of major league level professional sports can also help their efforts, giving the city a team to rally around.
Cons: There's no pro sports history in Louisville -- which could also work in their favor, you could argue -- and they currently don't have a stadium deal to offer.
Detroit is a city with tons of sports history, and enough corporate presence to support an MLS team.
Pros: Detroit is one of the most historic sports cities in the country, and there's far more than enough resources in the market to make a successful team.
Cons: It remains to be seen whether or not they'll have the ownership or stadium to make something happen. The city has great support for an NPSL club, and recently raised almost $800,000 for renovations to their small stadium. I love the idea of MLS expanding into Michigan, but there's a lot more I need to see to make then a legit contender.
For some reason, San Diego has been gaining some steam recently. Garber has mentioned them a number of times in the past week, even though San Diego doesn't have an ownership group or stadium deal anywhere in place -- although, Garber continuing to mention them could indicate there is definitely something in the works.
Our SB Nation friends over at The Goat Parade have more on that.
Cincinnati seems to have jumped out of nowhere to make themselves an expansion threat, posting crowds of 15,000 and 20,000 in each of their first two home games.
Pros: With wealthy owners, and a city with a good track record of pro sports with both the Reds and Bengals, Ohio could be bound for its second team.
Cons: Garber said on Thursday that he recently spoke to FC Cincinnati's owners and told them they'll have to wait, however, which is pretty lame of the league to say. They're entering this race late. That shouldn't hold them back, but it might.
Jacksonville is a big market with just one professional sports team, and might be able to easily support MLS if it follows the model of its neighbors a couple hours south in Orlando.
Pros: The Armada posted great attendance numbers as an expansion team in the NASL last season, and the city has taken to the team pretty well. They'll need a stadium of course, and if Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, who already owns Fulham FC in England, decides he wants to get involved in the effort, MLS will surely consider the northeast Florida market.
Cons: Jacksonville has a terrible record with supporting the Jaguars, and there's no telling whether or not the city could stick with the team long-term, and we don't know if the current ownership group has enough to make MLS happen.
Charlotte is another good southeast option, which I've kind of been hoping would pan out.
Pros: It's one of the country's fastest growing big cities, with plenty of corporate support to be had. The Independence, who launched in USL last season, have stated their interest in gaining an MLS franchise, and securing a stadium would go a long way in making them a legit option.
Cons: there's no proof yet to whether or not an MLS team would survive in Charlotte, though there's enough for them to do so. I just don't know about them being legit.
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Who do you think should get in during the next round of expansion? Comment below!