Major League Soccer will officially, and finally, reach 22 teams on Friday as the club still known as Minnesota United formally celebrates its entry at an evening event scheduled to be attended by governor Mark Dayton and MLS commissioner Don Garber.
There, Minnesota will confirm its plans to play its inaugural MLS season at the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium, and perhaps the 2018 campaign as well. United’s intention to build a $150 million, 21,000-seat arena midway between downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis remain in limited limbo as the wait for state approval of property tax abatements continues. The stadium itself will be privately financed. United was hoping the Minnesota legislature might meet this week and vote, but local soccer website FiftyFive.One reported Thursday that a special session was “doubtful.”
The wait to secure that tax break (the land currently is exempt but stadium construction will change its status) could result in a delay that forces United and MLS to decide whether to charge ahead and play at least a portion of the 2018 schedule at the new facility or wait until 2019. Either way, as of Friday, United no longer will have to hold off on selling itself to potential players, sponsors and season-ticket buyers as an MLS team.
The more intriguing ambiguity set to be resolved is the name under which United, which traces its roots through multiple monikers back to 1990, will take the field. In February, it was told that objections by Atlanta United, next year’s other expansion team, and the league office likely would force a change. SI.com reported that the decision wasn’t fully finalized, but that “a second source with knowledge of the conversations said MLS was ‘inclined to say no’ to Minnesota and that he didn’t expect the league to allow three Uniteds.”
Then, silence. It always was in Minnesota’s best interest to nail down its brand early on, giving league outfitter Adidas time to create custom kits and merchandise. FiftyFive.One indicated last week, however, that the club will use “off-the-rack” uniforms next year, hinting that the name conversation continued past February. The team also put “all United gear” on sale this month, leading many to conclude the current name was on its way out. But that sale could have been necessitated by the upcoming switch from Canadian manufacturer Inaria to Adidas.
The gorgeous loon and star logo isn’t going anywhere, but every existing team that’s joined MLS has altered its brand in some way. In Minnesota’s case, it could be a subtle tweak (the wording on the crest, for example) or the name itself. FiftyFive.One has reported that ‘Minnesota FC’ is the choice, while a league source told SI.com that he “assume[d]” that ‘United’ would remain. The club isn’t commenting, and the long-awaited answer will come Friday as Minnesota unveils its MLS identity.
Beyond the Land of 10,000 Lakes, the expansion landscape around MLS, the NASL and USL continues to churn. Here’s a closer look:
The next round
The idea was to bring two teams aboard in 2017 and another the following year, and while Los Angeles FC still is aiming to kick off in 2018 questions and concern about David Beckham’s Miami project remain.
Despite the fact that multiple stadium location options have fallen through and that an astonishing 30 months have past since the Pérez Art Museum news conference where Beckham and Garber announced the team, league officials remain confident Miami will be team No. 24. MLS is waiting for certainty, but one source said Beckham and Co. are “moving forward” and that “there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
Garber met with Miami’s MLS hopefuls around last month’s All-Star Game in San Jose.
They are closing in on a stadium site in Overtown, a neighborhood northwest of downtown, and have courted an additional unconfirmed partner with considerable holdings in the area. The Miami Herald has reported that investor is Wesley Edens, a Fortress Investment Group executive involved in local railway projects. Edens already has a stake in the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks.
There’s ownership evolution in Los Angeles as well, although that won’t stop the club from moving forward with the stadium groundbreaking ceremony scheduled for Aug. 23. Henry Nguyen, the Vietnamese-American businessman who spearheaded LAFC’s founding, is scheduled to be there as work on the former Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena site. But he no longer will be the club’s majority owner.
Sources have confirmed to SI.com key components of a recent Bloomberg report indicating that Nguyen now is a minority investor in a consortium led by Larry Berg, Bennett Rosenthal and video game entrepreneur Brandon Beck. Nguyen apparently has stepped back in order to focus on his businesses in Vietnam. Berg, now LAFC’s lead owner, is the Apollo Global Management executive who brought actor Will Ferrell aboard as a minority stakeholder.
While opening its 22,000-seat stadium in 2018 is LAFC’s focus, it will have a presence on the field this year and next. Its U-12 team has already launched and will participate in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy this fall. It kicks off against the Galaxy on Sept. 3 in what will be the first of many next-generation LA derbies.
There also are whispers that LAFC is looking to get a USL affiliation up and running and may partner with, or purchase outright, the Orange County Blues. The Orange County Register reported in July that LAFC is considering Tustin, which is just north of Irvine, as the site for a training center, field complex and 5,000-to-8,000-seat stadium. The Blues currently play at UC Irvine.
25 and beyond
All indications are that Sacramento, St. Louis and Detroit still lead the race for MLS teams 25-27. The wrinkle is that this is a race with no established rules or finish line. When announcing the league’s intention to grow to 28 clubs last December, Garber said, “During the next few months, we will evaluate the possibility of growing the league to 28 teams and establish a process and timeline should we decide on further expansion.”
That hasn’t happened yet and although potential markets continue to work—Sacramento certainly has checked every box, from stadium site and MLS jersey sponsorship to a six-team, fully-funded academy—no formal expansion application or evaluation process has been announced. And the league isn’t really in any rush to establish one as demand for entry grows. MLS can sit back and watch opportunities develop around the country, knowing that competition will result in improved bids and higher expansion fees. A committee that includes Jonathan Kraft of the New England Revolution, Andrew Hauptman of the Chicago Fire, Anthony Precourt of the Columbus Crew and Phil Rawlins of Orlando City, and maybe more, is coordinating the league’s effort, according to sources.
“There has been incredible interest from cities across the country in acquiring a Major League Soccer expansion club and we continue to have productive discussions with a number of prospective ownership groups,” MLS president Mark Abbott said this month. “The league is continuing to work on the timetable and the details, including pricing, for future expansion and no decisions have been made. Based on the increasing value of MLS clubs, expansion fees could be as high as $200 million.”
Sacramento and St. Louis certainly don’t expect to pay anywhere close to $200 million. They’re already further along and have had discussions with the league—apparently informal, since there have been no formal presentations to the entire board of governors—regarding fees (on the south side of $150 million), requirements and timing.
The Republic, now in its third USL season, entertained Garber and MLS executives in the spring and expect the environmental review on its proposed Sacramento Railyards stadium site to be sent to the city council in early November.
St. Louis, meanwhile, has a stadium site identified on the edge of downtown but still is finalizing its ownership group. Jim Kavanaugh, the co-founder and CEO of Worldwide Technology and the owner of second-year USL team St. Louis FC., is one of the investors involved in the MLS bid. The league wants St. Louis and its deep-rooted soccer culture and is bullish on the prospect of accessing some of the public funding left on the table by the now-Los Angeles Rams.
Like Sacramento, St. Louis appears to be a matter of when not if.
MLS is keen on the audacious downtown stadium plan in Detroit concocted by Pistons owner Tom Gores and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, a Motor City native. If they can make it happen, Detroit almost surely will get a team.
San Diego is another desirable market that would become an immediate expansion favorite if it can get a stadium solution worked out. If the NFL’s Chargers resolve their situation and remain in the city, that could create a domino affect that opens the door for a future MLS team. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported in June that potential MLS investors are looking to partner with San Diego State on a Mission Valley facility located where the Chargers’ Qualcomm Stadium now sits. So at the moment, San Diego’s MLS prospects depend on the Chargers.
Among the other cities mentioned as potential sites, like San Antonio, Charlotte and Phoenix, Cincinnati is making the most noise. First-year USL franchise FC Cincinnati, which is owned by American Financial Group chief Carl Lindner III, is averaging a jaw-dropping 16,957 at Nippert Stadium. That total is a USL record by some distance.
SI.com understands that FC Cincinnati representatives already have visited MLS’s New York headquarters on multiple occasions.
The lower tiers of U.S. Soccer
The USL’s rapid expansion will slow for at least a year. After adding five clubs this year, only one—Reno 1868—is scheduled to come aboard in 2017. Reno will affiliate with the San Jose Earthquakes. The number of USL teams is expected to remain a static 29, according to sources, as the Wilmington Hammerheads seem set to go on hiatus. A separate source tells SI.com that the Hammerheads are eyeing a move to Baltimore. The Austin Aztex remain inactive while they search for a stadium solution and Nashville FC is scheduled to come aboard in 2018.
The NASL will face addition and subtraction as well. The San Francisco Deltas, one of the more intriguing soccer startups in recent memory, will play downtown at venerable Kezar Stadium. The club this week announced the hiring of head coach Marc Dos Santos, who took the Ottawa Fury to the NASL final in 2015 before moving on to the USL’s Swope Park Rangers. The Deltas’ arrival will be offset, however, by Minnesota’s departure and the potential failure of Rayo OKC, the Spanish-owned expansion team beset by organizational issues. Parent club Rayo Vallecano was relegated from La Liga last season.