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Minnesota United's MLS expansion bid set to be accepted by league

MLS is set to accept Minnesota United's expansion bid, which has emerged as the preferred option over the Minnesota Vikings for the midwestern state. 

Minnesota United, which currently competes in the North American Soccer League, is expected to be granted an MLS expansion franchise, according to multiple sources. An announcement should come in the coming weeks, perhaps considerably sooner than the 45-day timeline referenced last weekend by commissioner Don Garber.

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Speculation has been increasing in recent months that United had taken the lead over the Minnesota Vikings in the race to bring MLS to the Twin Cities. In October, reported that Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor and Twins owner Jim Pohlad joined United owner Dr. Bill McGuire’s investor group.

A month later, the group welcomed Dr. Glen Nelson, a member of the family that runs hotel and hospitality giant Carlson.

And at a recent event for United supporters, McGuire told fans, “We have saved you from having to worry about your team playing on a plastic pitch … You will be very excited about the news you hear shortly."

On Thursday, Minnesota soccer website Northern Pitch reported that, “MLS has provided written support for United’s efforts in building a stadium in downtown Minneapolis.” It’s now understood that the “written support” was a signed Letter of Intent from the league confirming that United is the choice for team No. 23, assuming construction of that stadium is confirmed. The club already has an option in place to acquire a piece of downtown property adjacent to the Minneapolis Farmers Market, just a couple blocks from Target Field.

MLS sources told Friday that United is the choice. Neither United nor the Vikings would comment. The league office sent a statement saying, “We remain on track to announce the next MLS expansion market in the next 30-45 days. No specific date for an expansion announcement has been set.”

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United currently is in Brazil, where it is training in preparation for the NASL season that kicks off April 4. Champions in 2011, Minnesota finished with the league’s best regular-season record last year but was upset in the semifinals by the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.

The Vikings’ bid was anchored by the $1 billion, 65,000-seat domed stadium currently under construction on the eastern side of the city. The Vikings planned on building a house reduction mechanism designed to create greater intimacy for soccer and appeared to be banking on the hope that local appetite for yet another sports facility would be minimal following a $500 million public contribution toward the new NFL stadium. The Vikings and architect HKS called it a “multi-purpose” arena. In addition to being prepped for soccer, the stadium will host the 2019 NCAA Final Four.

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Already committed to playing in an NFL facility in Atlanta, MLS has taken an alternate route in Minnesota. Its decision to commit to United reflects the preference for a smaller, outdoor stadium designed with soccer in mind. Although several MLS teams play in larger venues and on artificial surfaces, none call a permanently-domed stadium home. Both the new Atlanta stadium and Vancouver’s BC Place have retractable roofs.

If United is able to start building relatively soon, it should be ready for a full MLS season in 2018. Atlanta is scheduled to join the league in 2017. Los Angeles FC, the expansion team set to replace defunct Chivas USA, still is eyeing the site of the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena for its new stadium, according to a source. But with no deal in place and environmental and bureaucratic hurdles to negotiate, it’s too early to assume the new club will be ready to play in 2017 or 2018 (unless it chooses to kick off at an existing facility like the Rose Bowl).

So, there now is one open spot remaining as MLS surges toward a 24-team circuit in 2020. It’s almost certain it will go to either David Beckham’s ownership group, which is working to construct a stadium in downtown Miami, or Sacramento Republic of the United Soccer League.

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If not for the league’s 2007 arrangement with Beckham, which afforded the now-retired player the opportunity to purchase an expansion team at a greatly reduced rate, Sacramento likely would be on its way to MLS. Republic’s bid is similar to Minnesota United’s. The 2014 USL champ has a bead on a downtown, soccer-specific stadium and a well-funded ownership group including contributions from existing pro sports franchises (the NFL’s 49ers and NBA’s Kings).

It also has a recognizable brand that’s already proven successful in the marketplace. But MLS’ deal with Beckham stands, so he’ll be given every opportunity to secure a stadium before the league makes its decision.