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MLS Expansion: Top 20 Cities for the MLS to Go to Next

Charles BennettSenior Analyst IJuly 28, 2013

MLS Expansion: Top 20 Cities for the MLS to Go to Next

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    In May, MLS announced a second franchise in New York.  That elicited this article on MLS expansion.  It’s likely that MLS will have 24 teams within the next 10 or 15 years.

    Since then, there has been a lot of water under the bridge. 

    MLS VP Dan Courtemanche said future expansion will be addressed in the near future, via Joe Prince-Wright of NBC's Pro Soccer Talk. It appears we are inching ever closer to a David Beckham-owned, South Florida-based franchise. 

    There have been constant rumors (although they have usually been adamantly denied) that Chivas USA or another MLS team could pull up stakes for greener pastures, via Ives Galarcep of Soccer by Ives

    Following a user request, I have added additional markets, plus additional information on market size and outdoor minor league history, and ranked them this time.  Though we may eventually get second franchises in some markets, each is in a market without MLS.  

    This is an update of this article. See also articles on NHL, NFL and NBA expansion.  Population figures are for combined statistical areas per the U.S. Census Bureau.   

20. Edmonton

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    Market size: 1,159,869

    Previous franchises: Edmonton Brickmen (1985-92, WSA/CSL), Edmonton Aviators (2004, A-League), FC Edmonton (2011-present, NASL)

    Edmonton is one of two Canadian cities in this article, as favorable television ratings for Canadian teams demand the consideration of additional Canadian franchises. For the last three years, Edmonton has been host to a NASL team, albeit one with an average draw of under 2,000.

    However, this is a non-starter for a number of reasons, ranging from disinterest among the ownership group to lack of an MLS-sized stadium.  

19. Las Vegas

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    Market size: 2,247,056

    Previous franchises: Las Vegas Quicksilver (1994-95, USISL), Las Vegas Strikers (2003-2006, NPSL), Las Vegas Stallions (2013-present, NPSL)

    Sure, whenever you mention expansion, the topic inevitably comes up that Vegas is one of the largest markets in the country without top-level sports.

    On the other hand, there’s the fact that Las Vegas has been a graveyard for minor league soccer: It hasn’t had a top-level minor league team in nearly two decades, and the fourth-tier National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) is the only league that’s lasted longer than two campaigns in Vegas. 

    It doesn’t have a soccer-specific stadium in the works after a previous proposal was exposed as a sham, via Alan Snel of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.  It has some of the hottest weather in the country, and then, there’s the 300-pound elephant that is sports betting.

18. Charleston, S.C.

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    Market size: 697,439

    Previous franchises: Charleston Battery (1993-Present, USISL/A-League/USL 2/USL Pro)

    On the face of it, Charleston would seem like a longshot: it’s a small market with three much larger markets (Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham) in the vicinity.

    But Charleston is one of the minor league cities that has a better case for promotion.  The Battery play in one of the better, if smaller, soccer-specific stadiums in the United States.  They've also won four championships in the various levels the team has played in, as well as a number of games against MLS franchises. 

    Unlikely?  Probably.  But it's not altogether out of the realm of possibility in a 30-team MLS. 

17. Oklahoma City

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    Market size: 1,367,325

    Previous franchises: Oklahoma Warriors (1986-93, SISL/USISL), Oklahoma City Slickers (1994-96, USISL), Future NASL and USL Pro franchise

    For the last decade, Oklahoma has been a trendy expansion target, culminating in the move of the Seattle Supersonics to Oklahoma City five years ago. 

    Practically within minutes of being awarded a USL Pro franchise that has yet to be even named, Oklahoma City’s ownership group (Prodigal) embarked on building a soccer-specific stadium that could be expanded to MLS standards. 

    A press release from July 16 indicates Prodigal’s end goal may be the MLS.

    Not so fast.  Let’s see if the USL Pro experiment works first.  Then, there’s the fact that many of the other markets contending for expansion have a million more people than Oklahoma City.  

16. San Diego

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    Market size: 3,177,063 (an additional 2,000,000 in Tijuana)

    Previous franchises: San Diego Nomads (1986-90, WSA/APSL), San Diego Top Guns (1994-96, USISL), San Diego Flash (1998-2001, 2011-present, A-League/NPSL), San Diego Pumitas (2005-2007, NPSL), San Diego United (2008, NPSL), San Diego Boca FC (2009-present, NPSL)

    San Diego is one of the largest markets on the West Coast that is without pro soccer and is the largest media market that straddles the U.S.-Mexico border.  It has had a number of minor league soccer clubs—to say nothing of the widely successful indoor San Diego Sockers.  Some think that Chivas USA may end up relocating here, via SI.com.

    There are a number of problems with San Diego, however.  It’s only a few hours drive from Carson.  But the main one is that there isn’t a soccer-specific stadium on the table and that San Diego is perhaps the American city most opposed to allocating public funds to stadiums.  

15. Phoenix

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    Market size: 4,329,534

    Previous franchises: Arizona Sahuaros (1989-2011, SISL/USISL/USL-3/MPSL/NPSL), Phoenix FC (2013-present, USL Pro)

    Phoenix is one of the largest markets—and the largest in the Western United States—that doesn’t have a MLS franchise.  It recently got a USL Pro franchise, which took the field earlier this season.

    There are two major drawbacks to Phoenix expansion, however.  One is that there isn’t a plan for a soccer-specific stadium on the table.  The other is Phoenix’s brutal climate. 

14. El Paso, Texas

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    Media market size: 1,045,180 (an addition 1,000,000-plus in Juarez, Mexico)

    Previous franchises: El Paso Patriots (1989-present, USISL/A-League/PDL)

    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.

13. Sacramento

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    Market size: 2,462,772

    Previous franchises: Sacramento Scorpions (1996-97, USISL), Sacramento Geckos (1999, A-League), Sacramento Knights (2003-2009, NPSL), Sacramento Republic (2014-future, USL Pro)

    When MLS had 12 clubs at the start of the millennium, Sacramento was one of seven finalists for four proposed expansion franchises.  Though that proposal flopped when the Florida franchises folded, four of the seven franchises mentioned (Seattle, Houston, Philadelphia and a second one in New York) have come to fruition.   

    The Sacramento suburb of Elk Grove is in the process of cobbling together a stadium deal, which would improve the chances of a fourth team in California.

12. San Antonio

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    Market size: 2,234,003

    Previous franchises: San Antonio Pumas (1989-98, SISL/USISL), San Antonio Scorpions (2012-present, NASL)

    Last year, San Antonio got a NASL team.  This season, it opened the soccer-specific Toyota Park, which will be expanded to 18,000 seats in the coming years, and the team already has its sights set on the MLS.  San Antonio is one of the best-drawing franchises in the minor leagues.

    True, there are already two MLS teams in Texas, and San Antonio was snubbed by MLS in 2005.  On the other hand, there are also 25 million people in the state.

11. San Juan, Puerto Rico

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    Media market size: 2,627,081

    Previous franchises: Puerto Rico Islanders (2004-2011, 2014-present A-League/USL-1/USSF-2/NASL), Atlético de San Juan FC (2008-2009, PRSL), CA River Plate (2011, PRSL)

    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 and participated in the CONCACAF Champions League.

    Besides the numerous opportunities expansion into the Caribbean offers, San Juan is completing renovations to Juan Ramon 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 now has a soccer league of its own, albeit one that operates on a lower level than MLS.

10. Pittsburgh

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    Market size: 2,661,369

    Previous franchises: Pittsburgh Riverhounds (1999-present, A-League/USL-2/USL Pro)

    Pittsburgh has had a minor league soccer team for the past 15 years.  It plays in Highmark Stadium, which seats 3,500 at the present but can be expanded, eventually to MLS size.  Highmark is one of the highest rated soccer stadiums that doesn’t have a MLS franchise.

    The Riverhounds’ owners are considering bridging up to MLS, and while Pittsburgh is one of the more attractive expansion targets in the Northeast, the fact remains that it’s a small market that’s in decline and already has three Big Four franchises (the smallest market with that distinction).    

9. Rochester, N.Y.

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    Media market size: 1,177,566

    Previous franchises: Rochester Rhinos (1996-present, A-League/USL-1/USSF-2/USL Pro)

    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 the aborted expansion effort by MLS in the early 2000s, as it was mentioned in the Sacramento slide.  

    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.    

8. Ottawa

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    Media market size: 1,236,324

    Previous franchises: Ottawa Intrepid (1987-89, CSL), Ottawa Wizards (2001-2003, CPSL), Ottawa Fury (2005-2012, 2014-future, PDL/NASL)

    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, via David Reevely of the Ottawa Citizen.   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.

7. Detroit

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    Media market size: 5,311,449

    Previous franchises: Detroit Wheels (1994-95, USISL), Detroit Arsenal (2005-2006, NPSL), Detroit City FC (2012-present, NPSL)

    The Pontiac 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.  Within the last few days, he also posited building a soccer-specific stadium on a jail site in downtown Detroit, according to Dustin Walsh of Crain's Detroit Business.

    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 (A-League, USL-1 or NASL) in decades, though it has had a number of indoor franchises.  

6. St. Louis

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    Media market size: 2,900,605

    Previous franchises: St. Louis Ambush (1990s, NPSL), St. Louis Knights (1994-95, USISL), St. Louis Lions (2006-12, PDL), AC St. Louis (2010, USSF 2)

    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 launched a successful minor league franchise, but both attempts ultimately failed. 

5. Atlanta

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    Media market size: 6,092,295

    Previous franchises: Atlanta Magic (1991-96, USISL), Atlanta Silverbacks (1995-2008, 2011-present, A-League/USL-1/NASL)

    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, beginning with the 2000 expansion mentioned in the Sacramento slide.

    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, Ga. 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 stadiums used for the 1996 Olympics. 

4. Raleigh-Durham

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    Media market size: 1,998,808

    Previous franchises: Raleigh Express (1993-2000, USL/A-League), Carolina RailHawks (2006-present, USL-1/NASL)

    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, the Timbers and the Whitecaps as teams that have essentially been promoted from the lower levels to MLS?  I don’t see why not.

3. Minneapolis-St. Paul

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    Media market size: 3,759,758

    Previous franchises: Minnesota Thunder (1994-2009, USISL/A-League/USL-1), Minnesota United (2005-2006, NPSL), Minnesota Stars/United (2010-present, USSF-2/NASL), Minnesota Twin Stars (2005-present, NPSL), Minnesota Kings (2009-present, NPSL)

    Minneapolis-St. Paul is the 14th-largest media market in the nation.  It is home to the soccer-specific National Sports Center, where the USA Cup (the largest youth soccer tournament in the Americas) is contested.  The Minnesota Vikings are also interested in a franchise, via MLSsoccer.com.

    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 1990-2009.  Minneapolis-St. Paul also has a very active NPSL scene.

    Of the several options MLS has in the Midwest, this is one of the better ones.

2. Orlando

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    Market size: 2,920,603

    Previous franchises: Orlando Lions (1985-1990, 1992-96, ASL/APSL/USISL/PDL), Orlando Sundogs (1997, A-League), Orlando City SC (2010-present, USL Pro)

    For the last four seasons, Orlando has had a USL Pro franchise. It currently plays in the decrepit Citrus Bowl Stadium, which isn’t the stadium MLS is looking for. 

    Earlier this year, it was announced that a Brazilian businessman, Flavio Augusto de Silva, plans to shell out $80 million to build a soccer-specific stadium, via Jonathan Beaton of news96.5.com.  This has led Orlando’s mayor to claim that a MLS franchise announcement could come any day now, via http://prosoccertalk.nbcsports.com/2013/06/21/orlando-mayor-predicts-new-stadium-mls-franchise-by-this-summer/.

    Miami will probably be the first Florida city to get a MLS franchise in this particular wave of expansion—but Orlando could be the second.    

1. Miami

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    Media market size: 6,376,434

    Previous franchises: Fort Lauderdale Strikers (1988-1997, 2011-present, APSL/USISL/USISL-3/NASL), Miami Freedom (1990-1992, APSL), Coral Springs Kicks (1993, USISL), Miami Fusion FC (1998-2001, MLS), Miami Tango (1998-99, PDL), Miami FC (2006-2010, USL-1/USSF 2)

    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 1998-2001.

    Since the Fusion disbanded, South Florida has played host to Miami FC, Red Force FC and the NASL Fort Lauderdale Strikers. 

    If Miami is to get an expansion, MLS must first ignore Florida being a tad inhospitable to expansion franchises (consider the poor draw of the Marlins and the Panthers and the folding of the two Florida FCs a decade ago).  Something better than Fort Lauderdale’s Lockhart Stadium (pictured) will also be needed to play host to a MLS team.

    However, the main reason that Miami is going to happen—and happen before Orlando, Minneapolis, Atlanta or St. Louis—is the little clause in David Beckham’s contract that allows him to buy a MLS franchise for only $25 million.  With Beckham in Miami earlier this summer to survey sites, I think it’s only a matter of time.  

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