June 29, 2012
By Charles Cuttone
New York, then what?
Major League Soccer will expand to 20 teams sometime in the near future, though no formal timetable has been set for that next team.
The league continues to be focused on a second team in New York, with Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, site of the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs, the current target of the league’s affections for a stadium site.
"We've looked at over 20 sites within New York City," said MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche.
MLS has taken the lead on the New York market, working with the city on identifying potential stadium sites even though there is no ownership group in place.
"We believe once we finalize a stadium plan, there will be multiple ownership groups that want that franchise," said Courtemanche.
Sela Sports, a Saudi-based company that owns the name New York Cosmos, is one of the interested groups, as is a group led by former CONCACAF General Secretary Chuck Blazer. But MLS Commissioner Don Garber has said there are multiple other groups interested as well. MLS has been trying for a second New York team since 2010, with the original timetable having the team in place as early as the 2013 season. Clearly, that is not going to happen, and currently there is no formal timetable for getting the second New York entry on the pitch.
But with the league focused on a second New York team, as number 20, where does that leave other markets interested in expansion?
"We believe we could expand beyond 20 teams at some point," said Courtemanche.
While the league has had discussions with a number of interested groups and cities, there is no timetable at the moment for going beyond the 20th team, though the scenario could exist for an expansion to 24 or even 32 teams in the future.
The league moved rather quickly in going from 10 teams to 19 teams, adding Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake(2005), then taking in Toronto (2007), San Jose (2008), Seattle (2009), Philadelphia (2010), Vancouver and Portland (2011) and Montreal (2012). MLS also got into a new market in 2006, when the original San Jose franchise moved to Houston. All of this expansion activity came on the heels of the league contracting Miami and Tampa following the 2001 season.
Orlando would appear to be the most likely candidate for a new franchise at the moment, and some observers feel if the New York scenario does not work out for MLS, the Central Florida city could be next in line.
Garber visited the city earlier this year, met with civic leaders and held a fan forum. The league has had numerous discussions with Phil Rawlins, owner of the USL PRO Orlando City FC. The biggest drawback in the Orlando market at the moment appears to be the lack of plans for a soccer-specific stadium, since the city-owned Citrus Bowl, where Orlando City currently plays, does not fit the bill for MLS.
That is not to say, however, that the league would not consider placing an expansion team into a National Football League stadium, which is the likely scenario were plans to proceed in either Atlanta or the Minnesota Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul.
The league has had substantive discussions with Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, and with Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf.
Atlanta took part in the league’s 2008 expansion process, which ultimately awarded franchises to Portland and Vancouver, and Minnesota recently entered into the equation with plans for the Vikings’ new stadium. If those NFL venues presented a scenario where the lower bowl could be utilized such as it is in Vancouver with BC Place, and the NFL owners were the owners of the MLS team, the league would consider that possibility.
In Minnesota, the Vikings included an exclusive option in their stadium plan to control any potential soccer franchise that would play in the planned venue. While this is the first time Minnesota has been seriously injected into the expansion conversation, the league is well aware of the history there, where the North American Soccer League's Minnesota Kicks averaged over 30,000 fans per game in the late 70s.
MLS realizes how much money it would be leaving on the table if the Seattle Sounders played in a 20-25,000 seat soccer-specific venue.
Las Vegas and Miami are also currently on the league's radar. Several groups from Las Vegas, touting various stadium development projects, have approached the league over the last few years, and adding a team in the Southwest would allow the league to further expand its footprint. Although MLS’s first foray to Miami did not end well, the league recognizes the marketplace has changed since then, and has had discussions with several groups about bringing a franchise to South Florida.
While other markets have come up from time to time, none appear to be receiving serious consideration from the league at this time. A number of cities that were under consideration in the past, including Phoenix, San Antonio, Ottawa, St. Louis, Cleveland and San Diego, have fallen off the radar.
Ownership: Phil Rawlings, Orlando City FC
Stadium: Currently Citrus Bowl, would need a new plan
Population (market): 2,818,120
Market rank: 22
Ownership: Arthur Blank, Atlanta Falcons
Stadium: Proposed NFL Stadium or soccer-specific
Population (market): 5,618,431
Market rank: 10
Ownership: Zygi Wilf, Minnesota Vikings
Stadium: Proposed NFL Stadium
Population (market): 3,615,902
Market rank: 17
Ownership: none identified
Stadium: none identified
Population (market): 5,564,635
Market rank: 12
Ownership: none identified
Stadium: none identified
Population (market): 1,951,269
Market rank: 34