Major League Soccer, which has added six teams in six years and will welcome up to four more in the next few seasons, outlined plans Thursday to expand into two additional cities by 2020 and another two in subsequent years to reach 28 overall.
Interested expansion owners face a Jan. 31 deadline to submit applications. The league will then choose two bids sometime next year, with an expectation of starting play in spring 2020. The timetable for the last two teams hasn’t been set.
The entry fee for the 2020 teams is $150 million, an amount set following an MLS board of governors meeting in New York on Thursday. Ten years ago, Toronto FC joined the league for $10 million.
MLS said groups representing 10 markets have expressed interest: Charlotte, Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville, Raleigh-Durham, Sacramento, St. Louis, San Antonio, San Diego and Tampa-St. Petersburg.
Atlanta United and Minnesota United will enter the league next year, increasing membership to 22. A second Los Angeles team, which is building a soccer stadium on the site of the old downtown sports arena, will launch in 2018.
The league had planned to pair that L.A. side with a Miami team owned by David Beckham, but stadium issues have stalled South Florida’s prospects. It’s unclear whether one of the other expansion hopefuls, most notably Sacramento, would replace Miami. MLS said Thursday that it’s “making progress” on the Miami front.
Commissioner Don Garber said: “Obviously if we can’t close the deal in Miami, we’ll figure out who will be our 24th team, but we’re trying to get a deal done in Miami.”
If Miami is not ready for 2018 — and that seems increasingly unlikely — and MLS does not choose a substitute for the 24th team, the league would have to function with an odd number of members. That would leave one team idle each weekend.
“We have had an odd number of teams in the past,” Garber said. “It’s not optimum, and we try to do everything we can to avoid it. We still need to figure out how it all rolls out, but in the event that we do, the goal is to have it for a very short period of time.”
Beyond the franchise fee, the league requires prospective expansion groups to have:
- “The resources to invest in the infrastructure to build the sport in their respective market.”
- “A market that has a history of strong fan support for soccer and other sporting events, is located in a desirable geographic location and is attractive to corporate sponsors and TV partners.”
- “A comprehensive stadium plan that ensures the club will have a proper home while also serving as a destination for the sport in the community.”
Between the expansion fee and the resources necessary to build or renovate a stadium, the league said it anticipates newcomers to invest more than $300 million.
While global talent is plentiful, there are concerns among fans and observers about diluting the American player pool.
“We’re making the kinds of investments that will ensure it gets better faster,” Garber said. “We have been making massive investments in player development for our academy programs and the homegrown player rule. At no time would we ever think about making any decisions on league growth without ensuring that we would do it in the context of continuing to improve both in perception of, and the reality of, our player quality. Frankly, we are pretty smart and focused in these areas and I’m confident we will be able to achieve it.”
MLS’s expansion committee consists of ownership representatives from five clubs: Jonathan Kraft (New England Revolution), Andrew Hauptman (Chicago Fire), Anthony Precourt (Columbus Crew), Phil Rawlins (Orlando City) and Jay Sugarman (Philadelphia Union).
The league completed its 21st season last weekend, with the Seattle Sounders defeating Toronto in the final.
Next week, MLS will announce the 2017 home openers for every team. The full schedule will come out sometime before the Jan. 13 draft.