MLS's stadium deadline passes, but Minnesota still in play for expansion

MLS's July 1 stadium deadline for Minnesota has come and gone, but options remain for league expansion to wind up in the North Star State.
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Minnesota United’s July 1 “deadline” to present a stadium plan to Major League Soccer came and went on Wednesday, but expansion to the Twin Cities remains very much in play thanks in part to interest from the city of St. Paul, deputy commissioner Mark Abbott said.

United, which currently plays in the NASL, beat the Minnesota Vikings in the race to operate MLS’s 23rd team because it pledged to build an urban, soccer-specific stadium. Backed by a wealthy and well-connected investor group led by former healthcare executive Dr. Bill McGuire (and including the owners of the Minnesota Twins and Timberwolves), United focused on a plot of land close to mass transit, the Minneapolis Farmers Market and the Twins’ Target Field.

The club offered to fund stadium construction in exchange for property tax relief and a sales tax break building materials. United has claimed that the region’s other pro sports teams got similar deals in addition to “direct cash subsidies from state and local taxpayers.” The Vikings, for example, received nearly $500 million in contributions from Minnesota and the city of Minneapolis for U.S. Bank Stadium, which is set to open next year.

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But United was unable to close the deal, in large part because the state legislature didn't take up the issue before its 2015 session concluded in mid-May. MLS officially awarded the franchise on March 25, giving the club less than two months to get the legislation passed.

That tight timeline, in addition to the range of options still available to United, ensured that July 1 was a deadline in name only.

Speaking to local ESPN radio, Abbott said Wednesday that a downtown stadium was a “primary factor” in the selection of United’s bid and that the league had every intention of holding the club to that promise. St. Paul, however, presented a new wrinkle that Abbott felt was worth exploring.

“We do want to come out and have a meeting with people in St. Paul to make sure we can make a fully informed decision,” Abbott explained, saying that he’d be traveling to the Twin Cities in the next few weeks and that a conversation with St. Paul mayor Chris Coleman would be on the agenda.

“If somebody in Minneapolis came forward with a plan that would be tremendous, because that’s what we’ve always wanted,” he added.

According to Twin Cities soccer website Northern Pitch, the potential St. Paul site is just off the interstate, close to light rail and located less than four miles southeast of the University of Minnesota.

"We remain committed to making Major League Soccer a reality in Minnesota. Since being awarded an expansion club three months ago, support for our effort has grown across the state as countless communities, youth soccer associations, and business interests have expressed support for having Major League Soccer as part of our community," United president Nick Rogers said in a statement released Wednesday evening.

"We are pleased that MLS has agreed to meet with officials from St. Paul to learn about the possibility of building a new stadium there as we believe this is an opportunity that deserves to be evaluated further."

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Rogers's comments notwithstanding, Minneapolis isn’t entirely out of the running. Although approval from the state legislature no longer is an option, there may be other avenues the club can take to reach a deal. Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges opposes stadium subsidies, but the club does have supporters elsewhere on the political landscape (not to mention owners with a lot of clout), including on the city council. And the city itself now has competition.

The Twin Cities anchor the country’s 15th-largest media market, and United has the sort of ownership group MLS covets. The team has been successful at the NASL level and has been pursuing a stadium in earnest for only short period of time. Although Abbott insisted the July 1 deadline hasn’t been extended officially, his decision to head to St. Paul extends it in practice. United now has more time, and perhaps more leverage, to reach the stadium deal it desires. Ideally, it hopes to enter MLS in 2017.

MLS has pledged to field 24 clubs by 2020 and league commissioner Don Garber has said it will consider expansion beyond that number down the road. Miami and Sacramento remain the frontrunners for the 24th team.

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