Wednesday November 26th, 2014

Last week, MLS owners and executives met with four expansion hopefuls – from three cities – at the league’s headquarters in Manhattan.

MLS commissioner Don Garber released a brief statement that read, “We had productive expansion meetings today with representatives from Las Vegas, Minneapolis and Sacramento. We were impressed with the presentations made by each group. Following our MLS Board of Governors meeting on Dec. 6, we will provide an update on the expansion process and timeline.”

Here’s what we know about that process and timeline:

The Schedule

There’s very little chance MLS will make an expansion decision next month. Two sources told that March-April 2015 is more likely. Questions still linger about the bids presented last week in New York City. Meanwhile, uncertainty surrounding David Beckham’s effort to secure a stadium in Miami leaves the number of expansion spots in play unresolved.

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MLS has said it intends to field 24 teams in 2020 and all indications are that it’s sticking to that timeframe. New York City FC and Orlando City will grow the ranks to 20 next year. Los Angeles and Atlanta are scheduled to come on board in 2017. That would leave clubs No. 23 and 24 to take the field in 2019 if all proceeds according to plan. MLS is prepared to be flexible, however. If, for example, L.A. isn’t ready in 2017 but Minneapolis is, entry dates could shift.

The league is in no rush (the same probably can’t be said for the hopefuls) and isn’t keen on creating a logjam of new teams over the next three years.

The four bidders met last week with Garber, deputy commissioner Mark Abbott and special assistant to the commissioner Charles Altchek, as well as select owners. In attendance were Cliff Illig of Sporting Kansas City, Joe Roth of the Seattle Sounders and Larry Tanenbaum of Toronto FC. FC Dallas owner Clark Hunt also is on the board of governors' informal “expansion committee” but wasn’t able to be in New York last week. Those owners will share their views and findings with the full board on Dec. 6.

It’s unknown whether bidders will make additional presentations at that time.

The Fee

MLS is asking for $100 million from each club it admits during this next round of expansion. The league received a record $110 million from the Los Angeles FC group headed by Henry Nguyen, according to sources.

The Contenders

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MLS would like a team in Minneapolis. The league desires an increased presence in the Midwest. Minneapolis anchors the country’s 15th-largest media market and offers a tantalizing number of potential corporate partners.

MLS faces a tough choice, however, between United and the Minnesota Vikings. United, the 2011 NASL champion, has roots in the community (it can trace its history through various iterations back to 1990), the apparent backing of area fans and the inside track on securing a piece of downtown property on which it hopes to build an outdoor, soccer-specific stadium.

The Vikings may not have the soccer bona fides, but they do have the infrastructure. Construction already has started on a $1 billion-plus stadium scheduled to open in 2016. They plan to unveil drawings of a capacity reduction mechanism at a Minneapolis event scheduled for Dec. 2. Local politicians have started to choose sides. Hennepin County board chairman Mike Opat accompanied United to New York and told the Star Tribune that the county “has much invested” in the neighborhood near Target Field where United hopes to build.

“If expansion happens, I’d prefer it be the [McGuire] group,” Opat told the paper.

Other officials, including Minneapolis mayor Betsy Hodges, argued that the state-owned NFL stadium should reap the revenue from MLS matches. One way to do that would be for United, should it win the bid, to play select cold-weather games in the Vikings facility. MLS is unlikely to commit to either group until there's more clarity on the stadium situation.

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USL Pro champion Sacramento Republic has an investor group and downtown stadium site ready to go, but MLS doesn’t appear to be in a hurry to give it the green light. Sacramento has impressed with its attendance, branding and civic engagement. But its case may depend – at least in the short term -- on how things progress in Miami, from which little news has emerged in recent months.

Questions also remain about how the San Jose Earthquakes might feel about sharing Northern California with another MLS team. While the league has stressed the importance of rivalries, concern over a potential lack of corporate support in California’s capital remains. The Earthquakes, who are preparing to open Avaya Stadium next year, may enjoy the excitement generated by the matchup but may not want Republic fishing for dollars in the Bay Area.

Neither the Quakes nor Republic would comment.

Las Vegas may be considered an outsider thanks to a lack of experience with pro sports (it had an NASL team, the Quicksilvers, that lasted all of one season in the late 1970s) but it is impacting the expansion process. MLS won’t know if Vegas is even a viable option until the city council votes on a $200 million, 24,000-seat stadium package on Dec. 17.

The Sin City bid is fronted by Justin Findlay, a local car dealer, and The Cordish Companies, a Baltimore-based developer. The parties have agreed tentatively to a funding proposal that calls for a $20-25 million contribution from the city, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

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