The Portland Timbers (green) and Vancouver Whitecaps (white) are two recent MLS expansion clubs
It was recently announced that MLS will place a second team in New York for the 2015 season, the 20th team in the league and the 10th expansion franchise in the last 12 years. It seems likely that MLS will add between two and six expansion teams in the coming years.
Here are 10 markets, eight in the United States and two elsewhere in North America, that I see as possibilities for an MLS franchise.
I'm not considering intercity rivals to Red Bull New York or the San Jose Earthquakes in this article
My list is based on three of the four principal criteria MLS has laid out for expansion. I focus primarily on the existence (or the possibility of the existence) of a 15-to-30,000-seat soccer stadium and having success in the lower-tier leagues such as the NASL and USL.
I also considered market size, but not as the chief factor. After all, this is a league that fielded a team in Columbus for its inaugural season.
As such, I did not really seriously consider San Diego. San Diego has repeatedly shown itself to be unwilling to shell out for new stadia. Las Vegas isn’t going to happen for a plethora of reasons, ranging from 100-degree temperatures to sports betting.
In addition, I also dismissed additional teams in existing markets. Is it possible that one day the Cosmos finally make it to MLS, or could the Bay Area get a second franchise playing out of Kezar Stadium in San Francisco? Perhaps. But I consider expansion into existing markets a more likely proposition, considering the tribulations of my favorite side, Chivas USA.
Note: Unlike my earlier articles in this series, target metro areas are listed alphabetically. Also note that I am using the U.S. Census’ list of Combined Statistical Areas as my definition of “media market.”
Media market size: 6,092,295
Atlanta has long been one of the biggest media markets without a team and has been a finalist for expansion in nearly every round this millennium.
Atlanta has hosted a minor league team, the Silverbacks, since 1998, as well as a pair of NASL franchises both named the Chiefs. The Silverbacks have a 5,000-seat soccer-specific stadium in Chamblee, Georgia, that also has played host to women’s and development franchises. The “Apes” are one of the bigger draws in minor league soccer.
There is also discussion that a soccer team could be owned by the Atlanta Falcons and hosted by the successor stadium to the Georgia Dome, or an expansion franchise could utilize any of the stadia used for the 1996 Olympics.
The Carolina RailHawks play the (then-USL) Montreal Impact
Media market size: 1,998,808
The Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill “Research Triangle” is the fastest growing media market of more than a million in the entire nation.
It has a prominent NASL franchise in the RailHawks, as well as successful college programs. The Railhawks play in the soccer-specific WakeMed Soccer Park, though that ground would likely need several thousand more seats to be a viable franchise.
Could the RailHawks join the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps as cities that have essentially been promoted from the lower levels to MLS? I don’t see why not.
Media market size: 5,311,449
The Silverdome, former home of the Lions and a host of the 1994 FIFA World Cup, has sat largely vacant for a decade. Its current owner has expressed a desire to renovate the 38-year-old dome into a soccer-specific stadium.
A major downside to Detroit? Though it’s one of a dozen media markets with five million or more residents, it’s the fastest-shrinking of the 12 and already has four long-established Big Four franchises. Furthermore, it hasn't hosted a team at the top level of the minors in decades.
Several months ago, I outlined the case for MLS in El Paso in this article.
The basic argument is that El Paso is a fast-growing midsize market that not only has no Big Four sports teams, but it’s nearly a day’s drive from any Big Four sports teams or MLS franchises.
El Paso also has a history of minor league soccer, mostly with the Patriots, who were in the A-League at the turn of the millennium.
Minneapolis-St. Paul is the 14th-largest media market in the nation. It is home to the soccer-specific National Sport Center, where the USA Cup (the largest youth soccer tournament in the Americas) is contested. The Minnesota Vikings are also interested in a franchise.
The NSC has hosted several incarnations of minor league franchises, most recently Minnesota United FC of the NASL. Previously, it had hosted the A-League Minnesota Thunder from 1990 to 2009.
Media market size: 1,236,324
There are two Canadian cities that appear to be in the running for the fourth Canadian franchise: Edmonton and Ottawa. Of those, Ottawa appears to be further along, with a proposal to rebuild Frank Clair Stadium beating out a rival proposal from the Sens in Kanata.
Next year, Frank Clair is slated to host the most recent incarnation of the Ottawa Fury, as well as a CFL franchise. Ottawa is also home to St. Anthony Italia, a former winner of the Canadian Open Cup.
The downside to Ottawa: Ottawa is a tiny market, and there are already two other clubs (Toronto FC, Montreal Impact) in that part of Canada.
Media market size: 1,177,566
People have mentioned upstate New York as an expansion opportunity, either with Buffalo or Rochester. Rochester got play as an expansion option early in the millennium, with it being a finalist for an aborted expansion effort by MLS in the early 2000s.
Rochester has two additional advantages over Buffalo. For one, it is farther away from the existing Toronto FC. Secondly, Rochester has been a longtime minor league soccer city, with the Rochester Rhinos among the A-League’s most successful franchises. The Rhinos are the most recent non-MLS club to have won a U.S. Open Cup.
The Rhinos also have arguably the best minor league soccer stadium in the country, with plans to expand Sahlen's Stadium to the MLS-standard 20,000.
Media market size: 2,627,081
San Juan has hosted a top-level minor league team for a number of years, with the team going on hiatus due to stadium renovations. In their most recent season, the Islanders defeated the L.A. Galaxy 4-1 in Carson.
Besides the numerous opportunities expansion into the Caribbean offers, San Juan is recently completing renovations to Juan Ramón Loubriel Stadium (pictured) to make it into a soccer-specific stadium.
Besides the language barrier and the distance from the mainland United States, one of the factors that could hold is the fact that Puerto Rico might finally get a soccer league of its own off the ground.
Media market size: 2,900,605
With a metro area of nearly three million people in two states, St. Louis is one of the larger soccerless markets in the States.
Jeff Cooper has been trying to land an expansion team in St. Louis for a number of years but has been rebuffed each round due to financial uncertainties. Cooper attempted to get a soccer-specific stadium built in Collinsville and launch a successful minor league franchise, but both attempts ultimately failed.
If St. Louis could ever cobble together an ownership, it could very well be a good candidate for MLS 21.
Media market size: 6,376,434
With the Philadelphia Union coming online in 2010, South Florida is the largest media market without a team. It previously fielded the Miami Fusion from 1998 to 2001.
Since the Fusion blew up, South Florida has played host to Miami FC, Red Force FC and the NASL Strikers since 2009.
If Miami is to get an expansion, first MLS must ignore Florida being a tad inhospitable to expansion franchises (consider the poor draw of the Marlins and Panthers, and the folding of the two Florida FCs a decade ago). We’ll also need something better than Fort Lauderdale’s Lockhart Stadium (pictured) to play host to an MLS team.