As MLS closes in on Queens stadium, others fight for future expansion

Julian Finney

MLS Commissioner held a townhall meeting to help pitch the idea of putting a team in Queens, but at the same time there are lots of other cities that seem to be getting closer to viability in the top flight.

By now, it's so undeniably obvious that MLS has every intention to put the next expansion team in New York City that seriously discussing alternatives seems a rather pointless endeavor. The latest step in that direction was commissioner Don Garber holding a town hall meeting in Queens, where he laid out all the reasons MLS is not only interested in spearheading the effort but also why locals should be excited about it.

Garber outlined all the jobs the construction would create, the park land that would be rehabbed, the money that would flood into the neighborhood. The league even operates a website that explains what a wonderful endeavor this is.

As has been cleared up recently, MLS does not intend to actually build a stadium, buy the land or really lay out any of the big money here. They are just trying to get the project cleared, so that they can sell the idea as part of the overall package to the league's next owner who they are hoping will pay somewhere around $100 million and take care of most of the financing for this stadium. From a financial perspective, there's a lot to like as long as they can pull it off.

And frankly, some of Garber's language aside, wasting time arguing over how good of an idea this is kind of misses the point. Until this happens and crashes and burns in spectacular fashion, this plan is the sole focus of any MLS expansion.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, though. While MLS is clearly in no rush to get a 20th team on the field, that is allowing markets all over the country to basically get their act together in preparation for the next round of expansion. Admittedly, the league has never given a timeline or even said how many teams it could feasibly expand to, but there have been many indications that the league will eventually grow beyond 20 teams.

This is far from a complete list in terms of cities that could potentially fit into MLS (no mentions of Atlanta, Las Vegas or San Antonio, for instance), but this is where some of the more recent developments have been:

Orlando, Fla.

From all appearances, the next closest market to being MLS ready is Orlando. Orlando City SC currently is drawing well over 6,000 fans per game to watch third-division soccer. That's obviously impressive. They've also made no bones about their desire to join MLS, have at least put together a plan for a soccer-specific stadium and seem to be doing everything right.

Pros: There's an ownership in place that is motivated, the infrastructure is quickly being built and there's a known fanbase. It also gets MLS back into the South for the first time since 2001.

Cons: There's a big difference between having plans for a stadium and having a stadium. There's also a lot of difference between the kind wealth Phil Rawlins has and the kind of wealth MLS seems to be looking for.

Tampa, Fla.

This one seemed to almost come out of nowhere and it's hard to know how seriously to take it. But a group of investors has announced that they intend to build a $480 million soccer facility that would include an MLS-quality stadium. They say they don't need any public dollars. Frankly, it seems a bit much to believe.

Pros: Well, if this group is really prepared to spend nearly $300 million on a state-of-the-art soccer stadium, that's great. There's an established soccer community in Tampa, although this is unaffiliated with the NASL's Tampa Bay Rowdies. It gets MLS back into the south.

Cons: If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is, goes the old adage.

Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Yes, another entry from Florida. This one is not technically in Miami, where MLS once was and has supposedly come close to returning to, but that might be splitting hairs. While this is also a failed market, like Tampa, they seem to be experiencing a bit of a renaissance that has prompted them to formally start looking for a new stadium. Having a stadium is obviously a game-changer and would put them in the discussion.

Pros: This is probably the market that MLS finds most attractive. It's the kind of place that international stars would love to play and one that the league would love to have in its portfolio. It would also have many of the benefits of having a Florida team without the stink of past MLS failure attached to it.

Cons: South Florida is a very fickle sports market. Almost no matter where you look, attendance always seems to be a bit disappointing. Until MLS is seen as a bonafide "major league" it's going to be tough to get a market foothold.

North Carolina

The Railhawks have drawn well in recent years, boasting an average attendance of close to 4,000 this year and drawing nearly 8,000 to see them beat the LA Galaxy in the U.S. Open Cup. They are apparently planning to expand WakeMed's capacity to close to 10,000 and they have met with Don Garber about expansion possibilities.

Pros: There's clearly a soccer market in the area and they seem very interested in joining MLS. They are also among the more developed soccer markets in the southern quadrant of the United States.

Cons: It looks like if a MLS team were to come to North Carolina, it would likely be in the Raleigh-Durham-Cary area -- where the Railhawks play -- rather than Charlotte. That shaves off about 500,000 people from the market and makes it very similar in size to Salt Lake City, which is currently the smallest in MLS.

Pittsburgh

Hardly a soccer hotbed in almost any sense of the term, they are starting to make some noise with the construction of a new soccer-specific stadium for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. The new facility will be ready in the spring and seat a little over 3,000 fans. It's also expandable if the opportunity arises.

Pros: Pittsburgh is the 23rd largest media market in the United States and considerably bigger than a few markets with MLS teams. It's also the sixth biggest market without at least four 'major league' teams, so maybe that gives MLS a little bit more of an opening.

Cons: The Riverhounds have been around since 1999, which actually makes them one of the older clubs in North America. But they've never averaged as many as 5,000 fans in a season and the last time they averaged more than 1,500 was in 2006. There are probably good reasons for that, but it doesn't look like people are banging down the door to watch soccer there either.

Minnesota

There has been a professional outdoor soccer team in Minnesota every season since 1999, although never in the top flight. The support seems to be there, as Thunder regularly averaged 3,000 per game during the early days and the Stars averaged about 2,600 last year. But they've never been financially stable. With new owner Bill McGuire taking over the team last month, that will hopefully change.

Pros: In their pitch for a stadium, the Minnesota Vikings expressed some interest in sharing their facility with a MLS team. If that were ever to come to fruition, a situation not that unlike the one in Seattle could prove very promising.

Cons: That appears to be Minnesota's best hope for a first-class soccer facility and we only need to look at the situation with the New England Revolution to see how wrong that can go.

Sacramento, Calif.

The USL-Pro just announced that they'll be putting a team there in 2014. Although there are no current plans for a soccer-specific stadium there, nearby Elk Grove is apparently pushing for one. Definitely more of a darkhorse, but this region could probably sustain a team in a full grown-out league.

Pros: You might not realize it, but the Sacramento television market is actually the 20th best in the United States and the metropolitan area has more 2.5 million people. That's essentially the same size at Portland and bigger than places like Orlando, Kansas City and Las Vegas. If the NBA's Kings leave, that will also leave it with the Triple-A Sacramento Rivercats as the only professional sports competition. Not so coincidentally, the Rivercats are owned by the same man who bought the rights to the USL team.

Cons: For all the talk of what a great market this might be, there's never been a professional soccer team there (at least not that I could find). It's possible that could be swung as a good thing, but it's highly untested.

Phoenix

They'll make their USL-Pro debut this year, which is the only reason they are mentioned here. They still don't have a stadium, nor any apparent plans to build one.

Pros: With more than 4 million people in the metro area, it's one of the larger markets that MLS lacks a team. It also has the kind of demographics that MLS has often tried to appeal to, both Hispanic and young adults. They have drawn well for national team games, too.

Cons: There's a ton of competition for the sports entertainment dollar, with Arizona State also competing for attention with the Diamondbacks, Suns, Coyotes and Cardinals. That probably explains why pro soccer is so untested.

San Diego

There's no expansion news to speak of, but it was recently revealed that San Diego had NBC's highest ratings for their MLS broadcasts.

Pros: There's clearly an appetite for soccer, as they are consistently near the top of the MLS, national team and World Cup TV ratings. It's also home to more than 3 million people.

Cons: Right now, the only group that seems interested in bringing soccer to the area is one led by the San Diego Flash. Owner Clent Alexander is assembling an interesting group, but they aren't about to be buying a MLS franchise anytime soon. As promising of a market as it may be, it's got a lot of catching up to do to these other markets.


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