With the league’s 21st season well underway, Major League Soccer (MLS) continues to plot further growth, looking to expand into new markets around the country.
Launched in 1996 with ten founding teams, MLS has grown to 20 teams, having welcomed two new teams last season: Orlando City Soccer Club and New York City Football Club (NYCFC). Both did well with fans; Orlando City SC having finished second in MLS attendance -- averaging 32,847 (in comparison, the Orlando Magic averaged 16,785 fans in 2015), and NYCFC coming in third in the league, averaging 29,016 fans in their inaugural season.
The league will add Atlanta United FC and Minnesota FC in 2017, with Los Angeles FC set to go in 2018. David Beckham; who teamed up with Sprint Communications CEO Marcelo Claure and American Idol creator Simon Fuller; is focusing on finalizing the land deal required to build their new stadium and targeting for his Miami United franchise to play their inaugural season in 2018.
"Although it has been nearly two years since David Beckham and his partners announced that their Major League League franchise would be located in Miami, there have been well-documented challenges to securing a viable location for a stadium," said Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez. "The signing of this non-binding Letter of Intent may be the most significant step in our collective efforts to make Major League Soccer a reality in Miami-Dade County. It is also further confirmation that Miami Beckham United wants its franchise to be in our community."
With 24 teams in the fold, MLS is looking at another round of expansion to add four more teams in the near future.
"We will be at 24 teams by 2018. And we will go to 28 teams with a timetable that has not yet been laid out," said MLS Commissioner Don Garber. "What I would say is the next round of expansion is likely happening in 2020."
Various cities around the country have shown interested in joining MLS, leaving them scrambling for those last four seats at the table. Here is a list of cities eager in helping MLS and the sport of soccer continue its growth in America:
Sacramento Republic FC, of the United Soccer League (USL), is a front-runner to receive an MLS bid down the line, according to Commissioner Garber, possibly right after things settle down in Miami.
“Sacramento is far more advanced than any other market we are talking to,” said MLS Commissioner Garber.
The Republic play in the 20th largest media market and have averaged over 10,000 fans per game during their USL title runs in 2014 and in 2015. Team owner Warren Smith has also started a formal application process to build a 25,000-seat stadium for his club.
“We told Sacramento that they needed to have the right ownership group, and they have that,” said Commissioner Garber to the Sacramento Bee. “We told them they need to have a stadium plan, and we believe they do. And we told them they needed to prove the market through attendance. There is no doubt that all the elements are in place.”
Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans and owner of the National Basketball Association's (NBA) champion Cleveland Cavaliers, tweeted in April about his excitement regarding partnering up with NBA Central division rival, Platinum Equity founder and Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores, to bid for an MLS expansion team that would play in downtown Detroit.
While the Cavaliers swept the Pistons in the first round of the 2016 NBA Playoffs, both owners are looking forward to working together, with Gilbert helping secure the land needed to build a soccer-specific venue and Goren running operations for the club.
Despite the city's financial woes, Detroit mayor Mike Duggan is completely behind the idea of the two NBA owners bringing soccer to the Motor City, firmly believing that soccer can succeed in his city.
"I've been pushing for a Major League Soccer team to come to Detroit for some time," said Mayor Duggan in a released statement. "The fact that our citywide elementary school soccer league has grown from 600 players last year to more than 900 players this year is an indication of how successful a franchise would be in our city. I look forward to working with anyone who is committed to making the idea of an MLS franchise in Detroit a reality."
The departure of the National Football League’s (NFL) Rams franchise to Los Angeles created a void that MLS may look to fill. Former Anheuser-Busch executive Dave Peacock is working overtime to bring an MLS team to the 21st largest media market, after failing to convince the Rams to stay in St. Louis.
Peacock has teamed up with the MLS2STL Task Force -- comprised of Major League Baseball’s (MLB) St. Louis Cardinals president Bill DeWitt III, National Hockey League’s (NHL) St. Louis Blues President and CEO Chris Zimmerman, World Wide Technology CEO and USL’s St. Louis FC owner Jim Kavanaugh, and sports marketer Jim Woodcock -- to make his vision a reality. MLS2STL is proposing a $1 billion soccer-specific riverfront stadium in hopes of bringing soccer to St. Louis.
While Garber has said publicly that St. Louis is a favorite to win an expansion, the city, still reeling from losing the Rams, has some logistics they need to resolve in order join the league.
"There is a [stadium] site that is ready,” said Garber. “There is public support that we believe we could tap into. The governor and the mayor and other city leaders are engaged. I believe St. Louis is a very, very high-potential market."
Despite being one of the smallest media markets (32nd largest market in the country) in all of North American sports, San Antonio officials point to the love, support, and success of their beloved five-time NBA Champion Spurs as a prime example that a sports franchise can flourish in their town.
The city is banking that; between the Hispanic community (which makes up two-thirds of the city's population) and the Spurs highly-touted management team -- Spurs Sports and Entertainment (SSE) -- involved in the project; they can convince the soccer league to bring an expansion team to San Antonio.
But the fact MLS already has two teams based in Texas (the Houston Dynamo and Dallas FC) as well as the state’s proximity to Mexico and their highly popular Liga MX soccer league, MLS may get skittish about putting a third team in the state.
“A majority of the population is Hispanic but most of those folks have a primary club that they already love, whether it’s a Mexican league club or a club around the world,” said Tim Holt, managing director for SSE’s San Antonio FC, who plays in the USL. “We want to make San Antonio FC their favorite club or their co-favorite club.”
Former San Diego Padres owner, John Moores, is hot to get into the business of soccer, especially after having lost out on his bid to buy Barclay's Premier League club Everton.
But the allure of the 28th largest market’s gorgeous weather and large Hispanic community may not be enough to bring an MLS team to San Diego, especially with any club having to compete with Liga MX’s Club Tijuana for the hearts-and-minds of Mexican soccer fans.
For now, San Diego soccer fans may have to settle for an expansion team in the USL, with a new franchise looking to launch in April of 2017.
"San Diego is a thriving market with a millennial population and considerable interest in soccer," said John Griffin, Vice President of Communications for the USL. "The USL’s recent success is built on three core tenets: strong local ownership, an attractive market and plans for a soccer-specific stadium. Those three tenets will position our teams and the league for long-term success."
Las Vegas was recently thought of as a long-shot to land an MLS expansion despite being the largest market without a professional sports franchise.
In the past, legal gambling on sports has scared away professional sports leagues from expanding into Las Vegas, fearful that close proximity to the desert city would increase the chances of game-fixing scandal that would alter the integrity of the game.
Mayor Carolyn Goodman mounted a full press, last year, falling short of bringing an MLS team to Sin City after failing to convince city officials to subsidize a $200 million, 24,000-seat stadium for Symphony Park.
But a couple of new factors are giving Vegas soccer fans a sense of optimism that MLS will take another look at the town.
With the announcement that the NHL will expand into the market, MLS will certainly keep an eye on the NHL’s progress to see if a professional sports team can flourish in Las Vegas.
“I never believed there was a taboo about Las Vegas,” said Mayor Carolyn G. Goodman to the New York Times. “Gambling is everywhere. Some people are provincial and don’t want to change the status quo. But you have to get with the times. Pro sports are a natural here.”
Helping Las Vegas with their cause is the league’s number one ambassador: David Beckham.
The former LA Galaxy star and Miami United owner recently teamed up with Oakland Raiders owner, Mark Davis, who has eyes on relocating his NFL franchise to Las Vegas after failing to move the team to Los Angeles.
Beckham was part of Davis’ team that made a pitch to the Southern Nevada Tourism Infrastructure Committee to build a $1.4 billion, 65,000-seat stadium that can be used for both football and futbol.
“To bring a great organization like the Raiders is incredible, but it’s bigger than that,” said Beckham. “It’s about the MLS coming here, it’s about bringing in the biggest European teams like Manchester United.”
Regardless of how things pan out, the fact that so many cities are vying to become the next site for MLS expansions is a healthy sign that the North American professional soccer league will continue be around for a long time.
You can follow at Ed Molina on Twitter at @GlobalEd718