MLS visited Raleigh, N.C. this week to meet with locals about the possibility of bringing an expansion team to the Triangle. It was the latest on what we might as well dub the "Magic Mystery Tour" that MLS officials have been taking lately. Other stops have included Orlando, Fla.; Minneapolis, Minn.; as well as several others. Just like those other stops, MLS officials expressed a willingness to one day expand to those cities, but stopped well short of offering any kind of timeline.
The league is still extremely focused on putting a team in New York City proper, for better or worse. Expanding beyond 20 teams remains a concept MLS is interested in, but not one they are in any rush to do. More importantly, there don't appear to be any owners lining up to spend tens of millions of dollars to buy a team and potentially hundreds of millions more to build a soccer stadium.
Once you boil down all the platitudes and positive feelings that MLS sends the way of these various potential MLS markets, it's hard to find fault with any of this.
Take the greater Triangle/Charlotte market as an example.
In a sense, it seems perfect. The demographics seem soccer friendly. It's an up-and-coming media market. There's a history of soccer. It's also located in a corner of the United States that is still without top-division soccer and has been ever since the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion were contracted after the 2001 season.
As much as me or anyone else might like to see North Carolina or Orlando join the MLS fray, I must also admit there's no compelling reason to rush it. Let's go through MLS's checklist:
- An ownership group: No one in North Carolina has stepped up and it's hard for me to see Phil Rawlins buying into MLS without some serious financial backing.
- A 20,000-seat soccer stadium: The Carolina Railhawks are currently expanding to about 10,000 seats and Orlando City plays in the cavernous Orange Bowl. Neither have current plans -- or the money -- to build their own stadiums that would fit MLS criteria.
- Crowds of 18,000-plus: Of the four teams that have made the leap from the minor leagues to MLS, all of them had at some point in their history drawn at least 10,000 fans a game. In Seattle and Vancouver, you have to go back to the days of the original NASL, but the Portland Timbers and Montreal Impact were drawing huge crowds for second division play.
That MLS isn't falling over itself to sign up teams in Carolina, Orlando or anywhere else outside of New York City should be seen as a strength. It's proof that the league doesn't need endless expansion fees in order to stay solvent and can afford to be a little picky. Five years ago, when the San Jose Earthquakes were being revived, they didn't meet any of these criteria. But the league has grown since then. There's probably room for growth, but let's not rush it.