MLS now has two final fours—one group of semifinalists contesting the 2017 MLS Cup playoffs and another vying for the two expansion berths the board of governors is expected to award next month.
As teams from Toronto and Columbus prepare to decide the Eastern Conference title Wednesday night, MLS has revealed that bids from Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville and Sacramento have emerged as finalists from among the 12 original expansion hopefuls.
Representatives from those four markets have been invited to New York City to make their cases to the league’s expansion committee on Dec. 6, three days before the MLS Cup final. That committee—which is chaired by New England Revolution owner Jonathan Kraft and also includes Bill McGuire (Minnesota United), Andrew Hauptman (Chicago Fire), Cliff Illig (Sporting Kansas City), Joe Roth (Seattle Sounders) and Jay Sugarman (Philadelphia Union)—then will report and make recommendations to the remaining owners. The full board is scheduled to meet in NYC on Dec. 14, with a final decision anticipated shortly thereafter.
MLS has said it would like to name two expansion clubs in December that will kick off in 2020. Every indication is that it’s sticking to that plan. The two newcomers would lift MLS to 26 members (still assuming that David Beckham’s Miami project represents No. 24). Then an additional pair of expansion teams named in 2018 or later would bring the membership roll to 28.
The two finalists who fall short next month, as well as the eight bids sidelined Wednesday, could choose to continue their campaigns and contend for slots No. 27 and 28. The eight eliminated from contention for spots No. 25 and 26 are Charlotte, Indianapolis, Phoenix, Raleigh, San Antonio, San Diego, St. Louis and Tampa Bay.
Here’s a breakdown and power ranking of the four finalists with about two weeks remaining in an 11-month race:
1. Nashville SC
The quick and comprehensive commitment from the city, its growing profile and global cache, and the wealth of majority owner John Ingram—who hails from a renowned local family—have lifted Music City into the lead.
Nashville can’t point to the bumper crowds that have flocked to Sacramento Republic and FC Cincinnati games. But neither could Atlanta. What matters most to MLS is committed local ownership, a locked-down stadium deal, support from political and business communities and good demographics. The league believes that recipe leads to fans in seats, and Nashville appears to have all the right ingredients. Add investment from the Wilf family—which owns the Minnesota Vikings—and the fact that Nashville fills a significant hole in the league map, and it looks like a winning bid.
The kicker was the stadium deal announced last month. Ingram and his partners will put $25 million toward a 27,500-seat arena at the Fairgrounds Nashville. Taxes generated at the site will cover some $200 million in construction, while the government will contribute another $25 million to infrastructure costs and then lease an additional 10 acres to Ingram’s group for mixed-use development. That last part may well make up for the fact that the Fairgrounds is a couple miles south of downtown. And it all came together in under a year.
An expansion award should boost the buzz for Nashville SC’s inaugural USL season, which will be played at First Tennessee Park. The club already has hired former Colorado Rapids manager Gary Smith and former Sporting Kansas City assistant technical director Mike Jacobs, among others.
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2. Sacramento Republic
MLS commissioner Don Garber has given the “it’s not if, but when” speech to eager Republic fans, but that assurance hasn’t necessarily helped pass the time or cement Sacramento’s spot. The timing hasn’t been kind. Republic appeared ready for MLS right out of the gate in 2014, as it established a brilliant brand, set attendance records and won the USL title. But MLS wasn’t ready to expand or commit, and the club was forced to wait as years passed and challengers put bids together.
Sacramento endured and stayed the course, even as favorites like St. Louis and San Diego rose and fell. Ultimately, it’s done everything right. Sacramento’s status as the nation’s 20th-largest media market still seems to surprise people, and it's the only western finalist. There’s a successful USL team that attracted more than 11,500 fans per game in 2017. There’s an academy. And there’s a downtown stadium site where Republic has been ready to break ground for months. There also are commitments for more than 10,000 MLS season tickets and a five-year deal with an MLS jersey sponsor.
What isn’t 100% clear at this point, however, is the commitment and heft of the Republic ownership group. Majority owner Kevin Nagle, a pharmaceutical and health care executive, is rich. But he’s not John Ingram rich, and he’s been working in recent weeks to cement the participation of his potential partners—and perhaps attract new ones.
MLS will consider the net worth of the collective when it evaluates the bids, but it probably will want to go over the numbers a couple more times before giving Sacramento the green light it’s earned.
3. FC Cincinnati
The Nati are a genuine phenomenon—major league in almost every capacity save the club’s official designation. Launched two years ago, FCC captured local and national attention with record-setting crowds—it averaged 21,200 fans during the 2017 USL season—and this year’s gripping run to the U.S. Open Cup semis. It has wealthy local ownership in Carl Lindner III, and a couple weeks ago, it announced a decade-long MLS jersey sponsorship worth around $5 million per year. That's an MLS number.
“We think we have a lot to offer a growing league,” FCC GM Jeff Berding told SI.com this week.
But there’s a bit of uncertainty, which is why Cincinnati sits at No. 3. One potential issue is that it would be the smallest media/TV market in MLS (unless the Crew decamp to Austin, which in turn would make FCC Ohio’s only MLS club). A second is that it the league still might have questions about the club’s stadium plan, which includes a commitment from Lindner to finance construction of a new $200 million, 21,000-seat venue.
On Wednesday afternoon, FCC expects to get a thumbs up from the city council on an arrangement that would see some $57 million in public money committed to infrastructure development (roadwork and a garage) at one of the three stadium sites considered by the club, Berding said. The total reportedly is $15-$20 million less than FCC originally requested, and the majority of the funds will come via the city’s hotel tax. That site, Oakley, is the one FCC likely will present to the expansion committee next week. The Oakley neighborhood isn’t entirely suburban but sitting some six miles northeast of FCC’s current home at Nippert Stadium, it’s certainly not urban core.
There are two other potential stadium sites in play. The most attractive arguably is the West End neighborhood, which is adjacent to downtown Cincinnati and the hip Over-The-Rhine area. The issue there is that the club doesn’t control all the pieces of land required to build. Then there’s Newport, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River. The views would be one-of-a-kind and the infrastructure financing is in place, but FCC hasn't finalized a development agreement for the site. Is Oakley good enough? Would MLS rather wait and gamble on West End or Newport?
“We’ve said all along that the Oakley site is a winning site,” said Berding, a former city councilman who was a long-time executive with the Cincinnati Bengals. “We have a plan that has government approvals to build a stadium in Oakley and we look forward to taking that to MLS. Whether or not that plan meets the requirements of MLS is something that we look forward to discussing, and we look forward to working with the league if they have any concerns. We feel we have the ability to satisfy them.”
The stadium site options very well could end up being a good problem to have. There’s choice, potential competition and fallbacks. And if MLS is confident in Lindner and the market, it certainly could grant FCC entry before every detail is finalized in Oakley—or with the understanding that conversations will continue in West End and/or Newport. There’s time before 2020.
“The government approvals do not mean that we’re going to break ground tomorrow in Oakley,” Berding said. “What an affirmative vote means is that we can continue to work with the city, [Hamilton County] and the Oakley neighborhood, to finalize a plan that works for the best interest of the neighborhood, the city and FC Cincinnati. Then we look forward to continued discussions with policy makers and the public as we solidify our plans so we can use our private stadium investment to realize an exciting vision for the area.”
Of course, the options also could work against Cincinnati if MLS finds the permutations less attractive than the stadium certainty in Sacramento and Nashville. FCC has made significant progress and an indelible impact. But the deadline is here.
If the Queen City ranks third by a hair, then the Motor City feels like a distant fourth. Seduced by plans for a billion-dollar downtown development project envisioned by a pair of NBA owners in the country’s 13th-ranked media market, MLS had to be disappointed three weeks ago when Dan Gilbert, Tom Gores and the Ford family, which owns the NFL’s Lions, unveiled plans to park an MLS team at 15-year-old Ford Field rather than a proposed new arena.
Granted, the NFL stadium has been renovated. But it wasn’t designed for soccer and would set an unwanted precedent in an era when MLS can be far more choosy. It would be stunning if Detroit were selected.
So why did it make the cut? MLS already has three worthy, expansion-ready candidates, so it can afford to play the long game with Detroit. The league would like to be there, and it would love to have the likes of Gilbert and Gores—who have a combined net worth of more than $9 billion, according to Forbes—on the board. By continuing the dialogue, MLS puts itself into position to benefit in case something unexpected happens on the downtown development front or if there’s a sudden problem with two of the three frontrunners. The expansion fee will rise from $150 million for teams No. 27 and 28, but Gilbert and Gores likely wouldn’t blink at the difference.