MLS Expansion- Overview and Potential Expansion City Rankings

This article will be the first in an ongoing investigation into the possible expansion teams in the MLS. Raleigh City Sports’ own Moneybags Smythe will visit each of the top sites and report back. In the meantime he will continue his weekly gambling blog because he is a degenerate.  

On December 15th MLS Commissioner Don Garber laid the path for future MLS expansion to 28 teams, shortlisting 10 possible cities for team slots 25-28.  The Triangle area made the shortlist, and now NCFC owner Steve Malik must submit a detailed proposal by January 31st for expansion consideration.  Here’s a quick review of how the league has expanded, and how Raleigh might land one of the coveted new expansion team spots.

MLS Recent Expansion

MLS is currently a 20-team league: in 2017 they will add Arthur Blank’s Atlanta FC and Minnesota United FC to get to 22.  The following year, Los Angeles FC will become LA’s second club (Chivas USA closed shop in 2014).  In 2014 it was also announced that the 24th franchise would be in Miami, based on a sweetheart clause the MLS used to lure David Beckham to the MLS in 2007 allowing the Englishman to buy an expansion franchise for $25M in the future.  Beckham picked out Miami and purchased/rezoned a large area of land near Marlins Park for the venture, but to date there is still no stadium plan.  Due to the uncertain stadium timeline and the fact that a MLS franchise (Miami Fusion) previously folded in the city, there is some doubt that Beckham FC will kick a ball in the near future.

For teams 25-28, two teams will be selected in 3Q 2017 to begin the 2020 season, while two more will be selected sometime in the future. The shortlist of cities for expansion has been determined by MLS , they are:

  • Charlotte
  • Cincinnati
  • Detroit
  • Nashville
  • Raleigh/Durham
  • Sacramento
  • St. Louis
  • San Antonio
  • San Diego
  • Tampa/ St. Petersburg

Expansion Selection Criteria

Garber has stated the criteria for expansion teams 25 and 26 as the following:

  • Expansion fee of $150M paid to MLS (for comparison, in 2007 Toronto FC joined the league with a $9.8M expansion fee).
  • Team must play in a soccer-specific stadium, seating around 20K+.
  • Must have a committed, local ownership group.
  • Must play in a market/geography with long history of soccer support.

Assuming each expansion team can shell out the $150M, in the below table I grade each city on the other criteria to infer their expansion likelihood.


Stadium Ownership Market Final Grade
Charlotte C F C D+
Cincinnati D A A B+
Detroit B A B A-
Nashville C- C+ C C
Raleigh/Durham D B A- C+
Sacramento A A A A
St. Louis D- A C C-
San Antonio C- A A- B
San Diego F D C D-
Tampa/ St. Pete B+ F C D



10th: San Diego

San Diego has been considered as a top expansion target since the league’s inception, but in a city with such an uninspiring pro sports history a lot of cards would have to fall in place.  The Chargers have to leave town, then Qualcomm stadium needs to be demolished, and in its place a soccer stadium needs to rise.  For a city that took a long time to build Petco Park, and never improved a crappy football stadium, I give this a zero percent chance of happening.

9th: Tampa

The Tampa Bay Rowdies were founded in 2008 after an original MLS franchise, the Tampa Bay Mutiny, closed down in 2001.  They don’t have a big name ownership group and geographically Florida has consistently struggled in the MLS. Plus the addition of Tampa would make it three Florida teams in the league.  The only reason they aren’t in 10th is they have a cool plan for renovating Al Lang stadium (designed by my favorite stadium architect, Populous) and the owners have committed to privately financing it.

8th: Charlotte

Charlotte has always been second-fiddle in terms of North Carolina soccer, and unless their proposal names a bigtime ownership/investor group (which currently doesn’t exist) I see their plans fizzling.  The one thing they have on Raleigh is a stadium plan: with a relatively low-cost renovation of Memorial Stadium that already has a mix of public/private financing in place.


7th: St. Louis

With an ownership group that includes part-owners of the St. Louis Blues, Boston Celtics, AS Roma and Cleveland Indians (oh, and Anheuser-Busch), St. Louis has long been seen as a front-runner for expansion, given a good geographic location for MLS and good history in lower-league soccer.  However, their prospects have been dealt a major blow in the past month by Missouri’s Gov. Greitens, who has completely ruled out the possibility of public financing of any kind for a stadium.  The ownership strategy currently relies on $80M from the city to pull off a pretty cool master plan. If the financing riddle is solved, they will shoot up to 3rd in these power rankings.

6th: Nashville

Nashville is one of the fastest growing US cities, has done well with national team and recent Gold Cup matches, and apparently has a good soccer fanbase.  From Chatanooga to University of Vanderbilt, Tennessee has an appetite for soccer, and lead investor John Ingram is also on the Board of Trustees at Vandy.  There is currently a bill in the state legislature for a public financing component involving a sales tax stream of revenue (this is, in my opinion, the best way to partially finance stadiums), and if this bill passes Nashville could legitimately be a contender.

5th: Raleigh

Ever since Steve Malik bought the Railhawks a little over a year ago and rebranded them as NCFC, an immediate push to join the MLS has been apparent.  I love the energy and immediacy this owner has brought, which has caused them to jump way up the queue in terms of probability.  Raleigh/ Durham has always been a good location for soccer- the club level and colleges have always been strong, and the Railhawks have a nice attendance record.  The problem is that there is not a good stadium plan….yet.  WakeMed in Cary may be a solution for a first season while a stadium is being built, but MLS is not going to consider it permanently, as they are looking to take advantage of downtown urban development locations.  Along with Mike’s anticipated list I would add North Hills off St. Albans and Wake Forest Rd. as my personal favorite potential destination.  Wherever the future location, Malik has already committed to financing out-of-pocket, with the city only kicking in for the public infrastructure component (roads and parking).  I love this owner!

4th: San Antonio

Not a lot of chatter here, but you’d be wise to remember the Alamo City.  San Antonio is now the nation’s seventh largest city and could also draw the Austin crowd that’s just an hour or two north.  Spurs Sports & Entertainment just landed a deal that starts a USL franchise in the city with a goal of being in the MLS within the next six years, and if they fail to achieve this goal there are significant financial penalties paid to the city and local Bexar County.  Signing onto these kinds of guarantees makes it real. I see San Antonio likely being Team 27 or 28.  


3rd: Cincinnati

Cincinnati only just got a USL team a year ago, but during that year have smashed all USL attendance records, averaging 24,376 fans per game.  It really seems the Commissioner is dying to put a team in Cincy as he has visited there many times in the past year, but he has also indicated that their current Nippert Stadium is not up to MLS standard, so it sounds like a new stadium might be necessary.  Cincy would have an instant rival in the Columbus Crew, 200 miles away.  If they can figure out a stadium plan they are likely to land an expansion.

2nd: Detroit

Before writing this article, I gave Detroit little thought in getting a team as the city seems a total financial basketcase.  However, the plans being laid out by investors Dan Gilbert (owner of theCleveland Cavaliers) and Arn Tellem (owner of the Detroit Pistons) are very compelling- they are looking to buy an abandoned jail site from the city that is right next to Tigers’ Comerica Park, Lions Ford Field, and Red Wings new arena and create a giant sports/ entertainment corridor.

I love the vision, but believe that public sentiment in Detroit is such that the residents will not go for public financing of any kind, meaning these owners will be coming fully out of pocket.  If they are willing, Detroit is the largest media market without a MLS franchise, so they are likely to win a team.

1st: Sacramento

To me this city is almost assured the next team.  They have a solid ownership group that contains individuals with shares in the San Francisco 49ers and Sacramento Kings, have proven solid attendance numbers in minor league soccer, and are the 20th largest media market in the US.  They have a beautifully master-planned 224-acre Railyards district focused around the rehab of a 19th century railyard area, a brand new soccer station, and a new Kaiser Permanente hospital – so stadium is a lock.  San Jose would also provide a good local rival.  As a betting man, I will lock this in as the next team.

Final Thoughts

With many capable ownership groups, it seems to me that the biggest deterrent to any city is their ability to finance a soccer-specific stadium.  Some cities will have an advantage by utilizing (in-part) some sort of public financing, and some are much further along in the planning/location process than others.  The MLS knows it will get great deals with their next expansion teams, as the franchise tag and stadium requirements means that owners are serious and committed to growing the brand and product in their geographic region.  In fact, I predict that there will be at least THREE teams that join the league before Miami (technically the 24th team) as it is apparent that other groups are hungrier to get going.

The Raleigh-Durham area has always been a regional soccer power, and with Steve Malik’s determination to join the MLS ranks we just need to figure out a good stadium location/financing and we are an immediate contender.


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