Handling rejection: What happens when MLS says 'no' to your expansion bid?

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Four of the 12 finalists in the expansion race will become MLS teams. The implications for each, should it fail, vary greatly. 

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Twelve bids have been entered, but only four will be chosen. The Major League Soccer expansion sweepstakes has been arguably just as entertaining as the soccer played on the field in 2017.

Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville and Sacramento were in late November identified as finalists for the first two slots to be awarded in December. But what becomes of the remaining markets that aren’t chosen, either in this round or for the two subsequent spots that will be awarded some time in 2018?

For some, it might be a matter of just waiting for MLS to keep expanding. Portland, Orlando and Minnesota were repeatedly passed up for expansion slots over the last decade, but held out belief they’d eventually get in – which they did. Given MLS’ growth rate from 10 teams to potentially 28 in just 15 years, there’s no reason to believe the league will institute a hard cap on how many clubs it wants among its ranks, no matter what commissioner Don Garber says.

But for others, missing out on MLS might mean an uncertain future. For all the talk of a growing league, the Rochester Rhinos offer a cautionary tale. Just over a decade ago, the USL club was on the short list of MLS expansion candidates. But ownership issues, massive debts and shrinking attendance not only torpedoed the 1999 U.S. Open Cup champions’ MLS hopes, they’ve thrown the club’s very existence into doubt: One day after MLS named its four expansion finalists, the Rhinos announced they would take a one-year hiatus.

That doesn’t mean it’s MLS or bust for the dozen current hopefuls – in fact, there are multiple bids which sit somewhere in between. Here’s how it might break down for the other eight markets.

No shame in minor-league success

There may not be first-division soccer in Raleigh-Durham, Tampa Bay or Indianapolis in the immediate future – or maybe ever – and that’s OK. North Carolina FC, the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Indy Eleven are among the stronger second-division clubs in the country. They’ve proven their markets will support the game, and even better, they’ve (mostly) got business models that continue to ensure their success.

When Steve Malik bought North Carolina FC – then known as the Carolina RailHawks – in 2015, he did so touting his goal to bring the organization into MLS. Shifting the club back to the USL in 2018 after eight seasons in the unstable NASL was a move in that direction. Not getting over the finish line will hurt his pride, but the club has developed a devoted core following in the Triangle, drawing in the 4,000-5,000 range for attendance at its soccer-specific venue, Sahlen’s Stadium.

Meanwhile, the Rowdies have also been a consistent hit at the gate, with attendance growing each year since the club was re-established in 2010 – it topped out at a record 5,894 in 2017. Owner Bill Edwards is deep-pocketed and pumps his own money into the team, including a proposed $28 million refurbing of Al Lang Stadium if Tampa Bay gets the MLS nod. If it doesn’t, he’ll go back to being a good tenant in St. Petersburg with a class organization. MLS could potentially come sniffing around the Tampa Bay area again – it is, after all, the 11th-largest media market in the country. But if David Beckham gets his Miami plans finalized (which is no sure thing), it’s hard to imagine the league putting a third team in Florida, especially with Orlando less than 90 miles away.

Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY

Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY

It’s slightly murkier for Indy Eleven, although club spokesman Steven Krusie tells FourFourTwo, “We have already proven the viability of professional soccer in Indiana as a second-division organization.” And he’s right. The club is perhaps the most stable of the remaining teams in the NASL and has been tops or No. 2 in attendance each year of its existence. But that begs a bigger question: What becomes of the club with the NASL facing such an uncertain future? Indy Eleven is already under pressure to find a long-term stadium solution, and if the MLS call doesn’t come (likely, since Indianapolis is behind nine of the other candidates in terms of metro population size), that pressure would only increase. It’s a well-run organization for now, but it’s not unfair to question the long-term viability of the club and where that leaves pro soccer in the Circle City.

Dominoes must fall

Both San Antonio and San Diego have been on the short list of MLS expansion cities since the day the league was founded. Both are huge markets with soccer-friendly demographics. But a lot is on the line for each as this expansion race approaches the finish line.

For the Alamo City, it may all depend on what happens in Central Ohio. One of the main selling points in San Antonio’s bid was that combining its market size with that of nearby Austin makes for a 4.5 million (and growing) metropolitan megalopolis. But that may come back to bite the group.

If Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt does indeed move his team to to the Texas capital, that would likely torpedo San Antonio’s chances of becoming an MLS town. And given the political enmity over that development, whether MLS even considers going back to San Antonio is a question mark: The city and county are conducting an investigation into whether they were misled by the league. In the meantime, San Antonio FC has been building a successful USL product on a modest scale – but that might be as far as it goes.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Even with Landon Donovan's backing, San Diego is a long shot. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports)

Earlier this year, San Diego almost seemed like a lock: With the NFL’s Chargers leaving town, it suddenly had the sort of pro sports vacuum where MLS has found success in multiple other markets. An ambitious $4 billion proposal to redevelop the land around Qualcomm Stadium into an entertainment capital was imminently attractive, too.

But as things often go in San Diego, politics bogged down efforts in a hurry. A measure to approve the proposal was pushed to next November’s general election, which means a decision would be delayed until long after MLS would likely award teams No. 27 and 28. To complicate matters even further, that ballot will likely contain a competing proposal unveiled last week by San Diego State University — and the school and its big-time sports programs would likely hold far more cachet with local voters than an MLS-centric proposal. The SDSU project is also cheaper, and wouldn’t need MLS to move forward.

So from there, where does professional soccer go in the nation’s 17th-most populous metro area? That’s a huge question with no obvious answer. The unfortunately named San Diego 1904 FC of the NASL plans to kick off in 2018, while the USL reportedly will soon do the same in San Diego.

Could MLS eventually try again? Perhaps. And given the Pandora’s box that Precourt has opened with Columbus, it wouldn’t be inconceivable to see an existing club try to leverage a move there – as long as the league is OK with potentially five teams in California.

All in for MLS

Take one look at Phoenix Rising FC, and it’s clear it’s not a typical second-division organization. There are 16 individuals on the ownership team, ranging from businessmen to athletes and celebrities – a setup that echoes that of 2018 MLS debutant LAFC.

Phoenix has also spent money on name players like Omar Bravo, Shaun Wright-Phillips and, of course Didier Drogba, who is also part of the ownership group. And the club has made MLS-friendly business moves like purchasing FC Tucson, the fourth-division club that also organizes a popular annual MLS preseason tournament. That all suggests the Rising has all its chips on the table for MLS.

What the group currently lacks is clarity on a stadium deal and a big-money investor to solidify its financial standing. If the MLS call doesn’t come, the group would likely have to radically alter its business strategy. That might bring the future of the club in its current state into question.

That said, Phoenix is an enormously attractive market by MLS standards. No major metropolitan area has grown faster over the past 25 years and, with 4.2 million in population (30 percent of which is Hispanic), it’s the largest in the U.S. other than Miami without an MLS team. It also skews young and enjoys massive turnouts for U.S. and Mexican national team games. If the Rising ownership group isn’t the one to eventually sway MLS, you can be sure interest will eventually (ahem) rise again, especially it a team is looking to relocate.

Momentum lost, and bigger issues to consider

Charlotte had seemed to gain some traction as a growing market with soccer-friendly demographics – not to mention solid attendance in Gold Cup and European club tour matches. But political support has dried up, as has the funding.

As the league expands its footprint, the Queen City would fill a hole: At 2.4 million people, it’s the second-most populous metropolitan area in the Deep South. But North Carolina FC’s Raleigh-Durham area isn’t close behind, and a team in Nashville might further dent those hopes. The Charlotte Independence hasn’t done much to sway public opinion either, drawing near the bottom in USL average attendance.

St. Louis has also long been a sentimental favorite as the supposed birthplace of American soccer, but the nostalgia continues to outpace the practicality.

So far, no prospective ownership group has been deep-pocketed enough to make a sustained pitch for MLS. The most recent proposal was shot down this past April when St. Louis voters rejected a proposition to earmark $60 million in public funding for a new stadium. First-division soccer in the Gateway City remains a sentimental favorite for many fans across the country – and would also fill a geographic hole in the Midwest – but unless someone steps forward as a main benefactor, it’s hard to see that happening.

We’ll find out within the next few weeks which of the final four will be the first winners of this expansion race. And then the drama will really build: The two bids that aren’t selected will rejoin the eight aforementioned, and all 10 remaining markets will get the chance to improve their bids before MLS names the next two winners.

For those that don’t get the call, are their MLS hopes just on indefinite hold? Or will it be back to the minor leagues, perhaps permanently? Stay tuned.

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