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MLS Expansion

Source: Minnesota a Clear Frontrunner for MLS Team

Don Garber intends to release more details about MLS expansion plans in the coming months, but ASN's Brooke Tunstall decided to handicap the field today. Here's his detailed exploration.
BY Brooke Tunstall Posted
March 11, 2015
12:44 PM
WITH A NEW COLLECTIVE bargaining agreement in place and the start of Major League Soccer’s 20th season successfully underway, the next item on the league’s agenda is expansion.

MLS commissioner Don Garber made the rounds of halftime interviews during nationally broadcast games last weekend and said that announcements in expansion can be expected in “45 to 60 days.”

MLS currently sits at 20 teams with new clubs in Atlanta and Los Angeles set to begin play in 2017. Garber has repeatedly stated MLS’ goal of having 24 teams in the league by the end of the decade. With several desirable markets and viable ownership groups jockeying to join the MLS fraternity, however, few in the soccer industry expect the league to stop at 24 teams.

“Our country is so big,” said one MLS source. “And if you look at what we have, there are three Canadian markets (in MLS) and two cities out of 22 that have two (MLS) teams. So that basically means MLS is only in 17 (U.S.) markets once Atlanta and the second team in L.A. start. That leaves a lot of cities capable of supporting major league teams and MLS isn’t going to just stop at 24, especially if there are ownership groups willing to pay $75 or $100 million expansion fees.

"Who turns down that kind of money?”

While the final number of MLS teams remains up in the air, the immediate question is this: Which two cities will acquire franchises No. 23 and No. 24?

American Soccer Now has learned that Minneapolis has emerged as a near-lock for one of the two expansion teams. Further, several sources said that a group headed by Minnesota United owner Bill McGuire—and backed by the owners of the NBA’s Timberwolves and MLB's Twins—are preferred to an ownership bid led by Vikings owner Zygi Wilf.

“The people at the league office love the idea of another team in the upper Midwest because the networks really like games starting in Central time,” said one league source. “Plus Minnesota is a big market that has supported lower-division soccer for a long time and there are so many companies like Target and U.S. Bank based in Minneapolis that there would be great corporate support.

"And having the Twins and T-Wolves involved really helps.”

McGuire’s group does not yet have a stadium deal in place “but they have made a lot of progress behind the scenes the last few months and they don’t expect that to get in the way,” said the same league source.

Minneapolis has leapfrogged Miami as the closest thing to a slam dunk for teams expected to begin play in 2019. However, South Florida, because of its market size, demographics and, yes, David Beckham, remains high on MLS’ wish-list.

If Beckham & Co. can get a stadium deal done, they will very likely join Minneapolis as expansion twins. However, as Beckham has learned the hard way over the past year, that’s a very big if. As such, other markets remain in play to be granted MLS’ 24th team.

Garber was not available for comment Tuesday. “Major League Soccer remains on track to announce the next expansion market during the first six months of this year,” MLS vice president of communications Dan Courtemanche told ASN. “While no specific date for an expansion announcement has been set, we plan to have an announcement within the next 30-45 days.”

There are about six markets that have emerged as legitimate contenders for the final spots. But none of them come without a hitch or two. Here is a look at the MLS expansion landscape.


MARKET SIZE: Media market: 15, MSA: 16

(Note: We have included two separate market rankings: Nielsen's, which lists cities by media market size, and the Census Bureau, which ranks Metropolitan Statistical Areas—MSAs—by a different formula. For more on both, click on the links above.

OTHER MAJOR LEAGUE TEAMS: Vikings (NFL), Twins (MLB), Timberwolves (NBA), Wild (NHL)

PROSPECTIVE OWNERSHIP GROUP(S): Minneapolis actually has two well-heeled, well-connected ownership groups vying to bring an MLS team to the Twin Cities. The first is run by Vikings owner Zygi Wilf; the other is led by Bill McGuire, a doctor who made his fortune in health care and now owns the local NASL team, alongside the owners of the Twins and Timberwolves.

STADIUM SITUATION: Wilf's plan is to have an MLS team play in the Vikings’ new domed stadium, which has an ideal downtown location but with more than 63,000 seats would be far bigger than an MLS team needs. Its artificial turf field is not ideal. But, it's a done deal, which is more than McGuire's group can currently claim though there’s a prospective site— adjacent to the Twins and T-Wolves’ venues downtown, where they hope to build a soccer-specific stadium. As noted above, progress has been quietly made behind the scenes and a deal for land and funding is expected to be reached soon.

CLOSEST MLS TEAMS: Chicago Fire (420 miles) and Sporting Kansas City (440 miles).

SOCCER HISTORY: The Minnesota Kicks played for a few years in the NASL and the Twin Cities have had a second division team for most of MLS’ existence. The current version, Minnesota United, is involved in the MLS push. The area has produced its share of pro players, most prominently former U.S. World Cup player Tony Sanneh, former top MLS draft pick Leo Cullen, and ex-U.S. international Manny Lagos, currently the head coach of the local NASL team, which features current national team player Miguel Ibarra.

ANALYSIS: Garber is reportedly bullish on this market, thinking it gives the league geographic balance in the heartland of the upper Midwest. It’s also no secret that Garber loves getting investment in MLS from owners of other American major league teams and the Twin Cities certainly provide that—regardless of which ownership group the league may choose. For these reasons, Minneapolis has moved to the head of the expansion line with the McGuire group apparently preferred to Wilf.

It shouldn’t be ignored that Minneapolis is in the Central Time Zone, an area that TV networks are said to prefer for kickoffs, especially compared to the West Coast. Given MLS’ well-known struggle with TV ratings, any little thing helps and this could be a factor.

Garber’s ties to the NFL are well known and Wilf can likely count on support from within that fraternity from current NFL and MLS dual owners Robert Kraft (Revolution/Patriots), the Hunt family (Kansas City Chiefs/FC Dallas), Stan Kroenke (St. Louis Rams/Colorado Rapids), and Paul Allen (Seattle Seahawks and minority owner of the Sounders).

But it’s not like there aren’t ties to Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association in MLS either: Kroenke (Denver Nuggets), Maple Leaf Sports (Raptors/Toronto FC), Lew Wolf (Oakland A’s/San Jose Earthquakes), and the Steinbrenner family (Yankees, minority owners of NYCFC) that McGuire’s group can call upon, either.

It should be noted that Wilf comes with his share of baggage as he and his family were found liable by a New Jersey court of breaking state racketeering laws and keeping shady books to dupe his partners out of shares of a family real estate business’ revenue. As part of the case a judge ordered Wilf and his family to pay $84.5 million in fines and restitution.

While this won’t be the determining factor, the McGuire group is more popular with local soccer fans because they have kept the sport afloat in Minnesota and the Timberwolves and Twins ownership groups are more well-regarded in Minnesota than Wilf, who raised the specter of relocating the Vikings to secure public funding for the new stadium. There’s also the soccer-specific stadium, which is ideally more optimal. If the McGuire group can secure funding, that would likely help their cause.

CHANCES FOR 23 or 24: Excellent and they become a lock if a stadium is secured.


MARKET SIZE: Media market: 16. MSA ranking: 8

OTHER MAJOR LEAGUE TEAMS: Dolphins (NFL), Marlins (MLB), Heat (NBA), Panthers (NHL)

PROSPECTIVE OWNERSHIP GROUP: Soccer icon David Beckham, entertainment executive Simon Fuller, wireless telephone baron Marcelo Claure. These pockets are deep as Beckham and his net worth in excess of $350 million is the pauper of the group.

STADIUM SITUATION: No site or funding identified. Beckham has had proposals for two different sites along Biscayne Bay rejected by local politicians and continues to seek another waterfront location. Local officials have offered the football stadium at Florida International as a temporary venue and recently floated land near the former Orange Bowl, near where the Marlins play in Little Havana, as a site for a permanent home. But Beckham wants something closer to the water and downtown.

CLOSEST MLS TEAM: Orlando City (235 miles, easily connected on the Florida Turnpike)

SOCCER HISTORY: The sport had a good run in South Florida in the original NASL but the MLS Fusion lacked a deep-pocketed owner and were shuttered after four seasons following the 2001 season. There has been a second division South Florida team in various incarnations the past few years with the Strikers currently playing in Ft. Lauderdale. The area has produced current national team players Jozy Altidore and Alejandro Bedoya, among others.

ANALYSIS: This one’s a fait accompli if—and it’s still a very big if—Beckham & Co. can haggle out a suitable stadium situation. Miami is one of the biggest markets in the country without an MLS team, has a huge soccer-loving Hispanic and Caribbean population, and is a desirable, sexy destination for big-name international talent that Beckham would surely attract. And it also gives Orlando a great in-state rival, the kind that has driven MLS’ popularity in other areas.

But Garber has made it perfectly clear, despite his affinity for the ownership group and their deep pockets, there is no expansion team in Miami unless there’s a deal completed for soccer-specific stadium. Despite a willingness to fund much of the stadium themselves, Beckham & Co. has found the local landscape tough to navigate as they seek the right spot to build. But Beckham remains undaunted and a spokesman for his expansion group said they remain optimistic a solution can be reached this year.

CHANCES FOR 23 or 24: Still a frontrunner, but with a very big caveat.


MARKET SIZE: Media Market: 20; MSA: 27


PROSPECTIVE OWNERSHIP GROUP: This bid is being buoyed by Warren Smith, who founded the city’s USL team, Sacramento Republic FC, and saw it have a smashing success in its debut season last year both at the gate and on the field. Smith has since sold controlling interest in the Republic to Kevin Nagle, a local pharmaceutical entrepreneur and a minority investor in the Sacramento Kings. Nagle has since added a pair of heavy hitters that will no doubt have all of MLS’ attention and respect in Vivek Ranadive, the Kings majority owner, and Jed York, whose family owns the San Francisco 49ers. Poor, these guys are not.

STADIUM SITUATION: The Republic has secured land near the Sacramento Railyard, a downtown site walking distance to public transportation and plan to fund the stadium's construction privately.

CLOSEST MLS TEAM: San Jose Earthquakes (120 miles, without ever having to cross San Francisco Bay)

SOCCER HISTORY: Not much of one at the pro level until recently. There had been a few indoor and other minor league teams but the city emerged as a viable pro market because of the amazing debut of the Republic last year. The area has a strong youth soccer population and has produced several current and former pros, including ex-MLS all-stars Sasha Victorine and Ryan Suarez, current Kansas City defender Jalil Anibaba, and MLS rookie Miguel Aguilar.

ANALYSIS: Two years ago MLS was a pipe dream for Sacramento but that was before the amazing success of the Republic, which averaged 11,293 fans per game last season, won the USL Pro title, and now have about 8,000 season ticket holders. That led to the involvement of Nagle, Ranadive, and York, and helped persuade Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, the former NBA all-star who helped secure an arena deal to keep the Kings in town, to swing a deal for a stadium site for a Sacramento MLS bid.

Toss in that it’s a Top 20 market and only two hours from San Jose, making it a natural geographic rival that could produce derbies rivaling those in the Northwest, and Sacramento appears to have all the ingredients to both get an expansion team and be a successful MLS market.

It also should be noted that for rivalry purposes San Jose wants another team in Northern California and they’d much prefer it be in Sacramento, where they won’t compete for season ticket holders, than San Francisco, which is much closer to San Jose and would provide much more competition. A team in Sacramento greatly reduces the chances of MLS ever going into San Francisco proper (though given the challenges of building a stadium in the city, that was always going to be a longshot anyway).

CHANCES FOR 23 or 24: If Miami falters on a stadium, Sacramento moves into the top two for the next round of expansion. But if Miami gets its ducks in a row, Sacramento will likely have to wait. But this is a matter of when, not if, and even if Miami comes aboard in 2019, MLS will be in Sacramento soon after.


MARKET SIZE: Media Market 33; MSA: 25


PROSPECTIVE OWNERSHIP GROUP: Gordon Hartman, a local real estate developer and owner of the NASL’s San Antonio Scorpions. He is reportedly seeking deep-pocketed investment partners.

STADIUM SITUATION: The Scorpions already play at Toyota Field, a soccer-specific stadium that holds 8,000 but was designed with expansion in mind. It can be expanded to at least 18,000—something that would be necessary for an MLS team.

CLOSEST MLS TEAMS: Houston Dynamo (200 miles); FC Dallas (300 miles)

SOCCER HISTORY: The city briefly had a team in the old NASL (English great Bobby Moore and current Notre Dame coach Bobby Clark, a Scotland international, played for it) in the 1970s and there have been some minor league teams. Under Hartman, however, the Scorpions have taken root, drawn well, and won a league championship last year. The U.S. is playing Mexico there next month in a friendly and the 65,000 seat Alamodome sold out two months in advance of the match.

ANALYSIS: MLS has flirted with this market before but could never secure a deal. Given its Hispanic demographics, its proximity to both Houston and Dallas, the potential rivalries there, and the minimal amount of major league teams, this is a market that has obvious appeal to MLS.

But while Hartman is richer than most of us likely ever will be, he may not have the funds required to pay the expansion fee, fund the expansion of Toyota Field, and cover the associated startup costs. He could use additional investors.

Perhaps the Castro brothers could help. Joaquin Castro represents San Antonio in the U.S. House of Representatives and twin brother Raul is the city’s former mayor and the current Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He gave the keynote address at the 2012 Democratic convention and is considered by Washington insiders to be a leading choice for his party’s vice presidential spot in 2016.

Julian Castro has met with Garber and his deputy, Mark Abbott, several times and was bullish on getting an MLS team in his city. He and his brother have the kind of influence that could easily help Hartman secure investors, and being in good with someone who very well could be vice president is not something MLS will look casually upon. Simply put, the Castros are good friends to have.

CHANCES FOR 23 or 24: Slim. But if they get some well-heeled owners, they become front-runners for team No. 25 or No. 26.


MARKET SIZE: Media Market 21: MSA 19

OTHER MAJOR LEAGUE TEAMS: Cardinals (MLB), Rams (for now, NFL), Blues (NHL)



CLOSEST MLS TEAM: Sporting Kansas City (250 miles due west on I-70) and Chicago Fire (290 miles)

SOCCER HISTORY: Strong. St. Louis is one of the original hotbeds of American soccer and players from the city made up the core of the national team for most of the 1950s and 60s. Similarly, Saint Louis University is a former collegiate power, winning 10 of the first 15 NCAA titles in men’s soccer. The city has had teams in the NASL and various minor leagues, has an expansion USL team this season, and produced myriad MLS players including Pat Noonan, Taylor Twellman, and Brad Davis.

ANALYSIS: St. Louis wasn’t on the expansion radar until Garber mentioned it as a candidate while speaking with reporters at the MLS draft in January. He mentioned the region again this weekend while speaking at halftime of the Orlando City SC—New York City FC game.

But no viable owners have emerged publicly and there is no stadium plan currently known. So while St. Louis’ soccer history and proximity to Kansas City and Chicago, as well as its market size, make it desirable for obvious reasons, until more is known about the ownership and stadium situations, it’s hard to view the city as a real contender for this round of expansion.

CHANCES FOR 23 or 24: Slim to none. But this is another Midwest market MLS would love to penetrate.


MARKET SIZE: Media Market 41; MSA 31


PROSPECTIVE OWNERSHIP GROUP: The Findlay-Cordish Group, made up of two deep-pocketed local business families. The Cordish family has been a power in Las Vegas real estate development for several generations while the Findlay family operates a large series of car dealerships in several western states.

STADIUM SITUATION: In December the Las Vegas City Council approved funding for a $200 million, 24,000-seat retractable-roof stadium with the city pledging $56 million toward the construction costs and land valued at $48 million. However, the deal is very unpopular politically and several local politicians are threatening to derail it so its status is in limbo.

CLOSEST MLS TEAM: Los Angeles Galaxy and LAFC (270 miles, mostly through the desert)

SOCCER HISTORY: Not much. There have been some attempts at minor and indoor league teams, and UNLV has had a few good years. National team star Herculez Gomez grew up in Las Vegas and is probably the best-known player to emerge from the area.

ANALYSIS: Like so much associated with this city, this is as much about big dreams and potential. But until the political squabbling over the stadium funding is settled, this bid is going nowhere.

Vegas’ appeal as an MLS market has less to do with market size than it does the potential to drive interest in the league in another angle: gambling. If the sport books in town could be persuaded to start promoting MLS gambling—some casinos already offer it but traffic on MLS betting is very light—as part of a Vegas bid, it could make Las Vegas far more appealing as an expansion market.

This isn’t the type of subject sports commissioners like to wax poetically about but given his American football background, Garber no doubt knows what gambling has done for the popularity of the NFL and how that helps drives TV ratings. Gambling on soccer in Europe is incredibly popular. In short, if a quid pro quo can be reached with the sports books, Vegas is in play, baby.

CHANCES FOR 23 or 24: Non-existent


A market to keep an eye on for future expansion is Indianapolis. The NASL’s Indy Eleven turned heads last year when, despite being a last-place team, it led their league in attendance at 10,450 per game playing at IUPUI's football stadium. Led by former MLS executive of the year Peter Wilt, the club has a proposal before the Indiana legislature for funding for an $82 million downtown stadium that will hold 18,500.

It’s a big if, but if that stadium gets built and given Wilt’s history with MLS, Indianapolis comes into play.

And even if MLS were to eventually put teams in all these cities, it would still leave major markets like Detroit, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Charlotte, Baltimore, Nashville, and Cleveland—not to mention a few Canadian cities—without MLS teams. That’s why many MLS officials and people within the soccer industry think the league will eventually crest at over 30 teams over the next 20 years.

Brooke Tunstall is an American Soccer Now contributing editor and ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.

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