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A Look at the MLS Expansion Candidates

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Four cities enter, two cities leave.

Crystal Palace FC v FC Cincinnati Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

Last week, Major League Soccer announced a list of four cities that would be considered for the next two expansion team slots. Those four cities are Sacramento, Nashville, Cincinnati, and Detroit. All four groups made presentations to MLS’ expansion committee two days ago on Dec. 6. The MLS Board of Governors will discuss those presentations next week on Dec. 14 and make a decision on which cities will get the next two expansion teams by the end of the calendar year. With all of that in mind, let’s take a look at each of the potential cities, some of the advantages and disadvantages of their bids, and, ultimately, who I personally think has the best shot to make it.

Sacramento

The general opinion is that Sacramento is quite favored in the expansion race. It’s got quite a few things going for it. The city already has a USL team in the Sacramento Republic which just so happens to have the second-highest attendance in the league. Its bid also has a minority owner of the Sacramento Kings, Kevin Nagle, on board, as well as San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York. And if that wasn’t enough, Meg Whitman, the CEO of Hewlett Packard, just joined the bid as a partial owner and investor. Combine all that with the fact that Sacramento already has deposits for over 10,000 season tickets, secured a jersey sponsor, and already started preparing the site where the stadium would be built, and Sacramento’s chances are looking very strong indeed. Plus they’re located in California, a state where MLS seems to love putting franchises. Honestly there isn’t really much of anything going against the California capital’s bid.

Nashville

Nashville also seems to be in a pretty good position. Its bid has several prominent names on board, including the family that owns the Minnesota Vikings. Having an ownership group that has experience in the sports industry can’t be underestimated, and could potentially give the city an edge in the race. Like Sacramento, the city also has concrete plans for a stadium, with the Nashville Metro Council approving a funding plan for a 30,000-seat stadium that would cost a little over $200 million. One of the downsides for the city is that it’s a smaller metropolitan area compared to some of the other cities in the running, particularly the next one on our list.

Detroit

Detroit has a strong investor group lined up, one that’s led by Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, as well as the Ford family. That’s actually where the problems for this particular bid arise though. While Detroit is a big market with some upside, the bid committee announced its intention to have any Detroit MLS team play at Ford Field, the home of the NFL’s Detroit Lions, which is not what MLS was hoping to hear. The group cited the example of Atlanta United and how much success it had in its first year playing in a stadium that was also used by the NFL’s Falcons, as well as the success that the Seattle Sounders have seen sharing a stadium with the Seahawks. It believes that the Detroit team could replicate those success stories, particularly that of Atlanta. However, MLS seems to feel differently and prefers a city with a smaller soccer-specific venue.

Cincinnati

The last city on that four-team list is Cincinnati. This is an interesting one for a couple of reasons. The city is an established soccer hotbed, with USL side FC Cincinnati boasting the highest attendance numbers in the league and also getting the city some soccer-related publicity with its run in the U.S. Open Cup. The Cincinnati City Council also voted to invest over $30 million in infrastructure like roads and parking garages around the area where a privately funded stadium would be built in the Oakley neighborhood. There’s a wrinkle though, because the community council in that Oakley neighborhood voted against the proposal. The ownership group is confident that it can get the approval it needs though, and has been focusing on how the city has already established itself as a strong soccer market.

The Breakdown

I think Sacramento is about as close to a lock as any of the four cities can be. Its bid has it all — a secured stadium site, a jersey sponsor, and an established USL team with a committed fan base. After Sacramento, it gets a bit trickier though. Conventional wisdom might say Nashville, especially since it too already has concrete plans for a stadium.

But, the more I consider it the more I think that the expansion committee will choose Cincinnati. I think its bid benefited tremendously from FC Cincinnati’s run in the U.S. Open Cup, as it opened the eyes of the MLS head honchos to just how viable of a market the city can be. The lack of a locked-in stadium plan is a problem but in the end I don’t think it will be enough to kill off the bid. Detroit’s stubbornness in insisting to use Ford Field is a different matter, and one that I don’t think their bid will be able to recover from.

In the end, my picks for the next two expansion cities are Sacramento and Cincinnati. Do you agree, or are these simply the ramblings of a madman whose mind has been decimated by the threat of finals looming in the very near future? Let me know in the comments.