MLS give update on expansion situation

Joe Prince-Wright
NBC Sports

Major League Soccer has issued an update on expansion, and it appears that the Charlotte bid is making a strong case for itself.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber revealed that the league is in “advanced talks” with both St. Louis and Sacramento who many see as the favorites to be awarded teams 28 and 29. Garber also revealed those two teams hope to begin play in MLS in 2022.

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At the last MLS board of governors meeting in Los Angeles in April the league was given permission to talk with the groups from Sacramento and St. Louis about a deal, while the board will meet again in December. In the next 30 days they plan to visit both Charlotte and Sacramento after visiting St. Louis two weeks ago.

“We are in very advanced discussions in St. Louis, and we really appreciated the details that they provided,” Garber said in Orlando, speaking from the MLS All-Star Game. “We look forward to continuing those discussions in the weeks and months ahead.”

With no timeframe given for when teams 28-30 will be announced, there is no rush here. But it appears the STL bid led by an ownership group fronted by Enterprise Holdings Foundation president Carolyn Kindle Betz which includes St. Louis FC owners, is way ahead in this race.

It also seems like Charlotte and Sacramento are now level-pegging, which is a little surprising given the fact that billionaire Ron Burkle is now the majority owner fuelling Sacramento Republic’s expansion bid. Garber did say talks with Burkle were “positive” and there is an expectation that both MLS and Sacramento are working through things at a sensible pace.

When asked specifically about STL and Sacramento, Garber revealed that talks are down the line with both but he also revealed that Charlotte’s bid, led by Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper, is making headway.

“We are in advanced talks with both of them. They are not exclusive talks. Exclusive means we’re not talking to anybody else,” Garber said. “It doesn’t mean anybody’s leapfrogging anybody else. We are in discussions with Charlotte, but we are also in discussions with Sacramento and St. Louis.”

Where has this Charlotte bid come from?

Tepper has spoken before about his aim to have an MLS team play at the Bank of America Stadium downtown, and Carolina Panthers president Tom Glick was former president of New York City FC. It is clear Charlotte is in talks, but not having a soccer-specific stadium may be hurting its plan a little.

“We are primarily in the business of having teams that play in soccer specific stadiums,” Garber said. “His plan does not include one. So it’s not something that we’re running with very quickly until we’re very, very, very comfortable that that could be a different path for us. And we’re intrigued by that path because of the success we’ve been having in Atlanta and in Seattle and [the Chicago Fire’s impending] move down to Soldier Field. … It’s an aspect of his bid that puts it sort of in a different path.”

Whatever happens, MLS will not be short of options when it comes to this round of expansion, or even beyond that as 32 still seems like the “magic number” for the league.

Reports suggest that the bid teams from Indianapolis, Las Vegas, Phoenix Rising FC, San Diego and Raleigh were all in Orlando for meetings with MLS around the ASG, which suggests that potential expansion cities San Antonio, Detroit and Tampa Bay are now out of the picture.

Garber isn’t trying to rush into awarding the next expansion franchises and that is a very good idea for everyone involved.

“These are lifetime decisions for a board to make and for an investor to make,” Garber said. “There’s a process that we go through that is really really time consuming. These are massive commitments at this point. When you get involved in an MLS team now with the [$200 million] expansion fee and the stadium, it’s a minimum of $500 million dollars. And finalizing those deals take time. Both of those teams [St. Louis and Sacramento] are looking at coming in 2022, so we’ve got plenty of time for them to get their projects finalized.”

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