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Next MLS Expansion Decision Likely to Come After Start of 2018 Season

MLS planned on naming two new teams in December. Then the second of its two decisions was put on hold, and it remains as such with the 2018 season on the horizon.

Time is running out on the MLS offseason and, with it, commissioner Don Garber’s hope (and that of many fans) that the current round of expansion will be finalized before the league’s 23rd campaign kicks off.

The games begin March 3. The race to be named MLS’s 26th team, which actually could wind up being the 24th to take the field, now looks like it’s going to extend beyond that date.

But maybe not too far beyond.

Appearing on SI TV’s Planet Fútbol show in late January, Garber said, “My guess is hopefully before the start of the season,” when asked when the next expansion club would be identified. Nashville was granted a franchise in mid-December and FC Cincinnati, the Sacramento Republic and a Detroit bid fronted by NBA owners Dan Gilbert and Tom Gores were vying for the second and final award of the round (which doesn’t include Miami).

Originally, MLS hoped to name both new teams before the end of 2017. Then, it hoped to have it done by the start of the ‘18 season. And Garber sounded optimistic last month it could happen.

“No issues there. Just dotting the Is and crossing the Ts,” he said.

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But opening day approaches, there are no plans for an announcement and with Sacramento still looking for a new investor and Cincinnati involved in a public (and occasionally passionate) dialogue over its preferred West End stadium site, it appears this marathon still has a few miles to go.

“Although we haven’t finalized any deals and all of the finalist markets remain under consideration, we’ve made the most progress in Cincinnati,” MLS president and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott told on Friday.

Reflecting on Garber’s January comment, it turns out there are lots of Is to dot and a T to cross in “Cincinnati.” The USL club owned primarily by local insurance and financial services billionaire Carl Lindner III remains the heavy favorite.

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“We don’t have, and don’t need to have, a fixed deadline, and we will wait until all of the necessary elements are in place before selecting the next club,” Abbott said. “Whether the announcement is in a few weeks or a couple months is dependent on finalizing the details, but I don’t anticipate that it will be an extended period of time.”

Cincinnati’s stadium situation is complex. The team has either three sites or no sites, depending on how particular you want to be. The clearest path to an arena runs through Oakley, a growing neighborhood about five miles northeast of central Cincinnati. The club will get $51 million in infrastructure funding in Oakley—FCC will finance construction of the stadium itself—and MLS typically is reluctant to turn its back on public money. But it also typically prefers to be closer to downtown, and the league would rather see FCC play in the West End or even in Newport, Kentucky, which is just across the Ohio river.

It’s possible the infrastructure funding could be available for the West End site (Hamilton County has agreed to pay for a 1,000-space parking garage), but building in such a densely populated area—the club would replace and relocate a high school football stadium—inevitably creates concern among residents. FCC president Jeff Berding, a former Cincinnati city councilman and Bengals executive, has faced a bit of heat at recent school board and community meetings.

Berding was unavailable to comment Friday.

Abbott said there was no handshake deal with FC Cincinnati in place that might allow the club to lobby for the West End site with maximum leverage. FCC already has several advantages in the expansion race, after all. It has the billionaire owner Sacramento needs and the commitment to build a new stadium still absent in Detroit. Even if FCC doesn’t secure the ideal site, it’s still the furthest along among the three finalists.

That doesn’t mean Sacramento has given up. Investor Kevin Nagle was unable to deliver a fully-funded proposal when meeting with MLS in December, and Republic suffered another blow when billionaire technology executive Meg Whitman bowed out as a minority owner soon thereafter. But multiple sources have confirmed a recent report in The Sacramento Bee that Nagle has received expressions of interest from several potential partners, and he said he’s willing to step aside as the lead investor in order to make MLS happen. Nagle’s group already includes the San Francisco 49ers and several investors in the Sacramento Kings.

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The league likes the market and Republic’s Railyard stadium plan, and even if FCC is awarded the next franchise, Sacramento immediately becomes a favorite to land No. 27 or 28. A lot of the hard work in California’s capital already has been done. No timeline has been announced for the awarding of those final two expansion slots, but it’s understood that the 12 cities that applied in January 2017 remain the ones under consideration.

If Cincinnati gets its team soon, it also becomes the most likely to kick off in 2019 and bring MLS back to an even number of members. MLS and FCC have looked at what Nippert Stadium might need to host league matches for a season or two, and the team already has some of the required technical infrastructure in place. Garber and David Beckham both said Miami would begin play in 2020. Nashville also isn’t too interested in rushing to take the field as it approaches its inaugural season in the USL (FCC is entering its third).

Los Angeles FC’s arrival this season leaves MLS at 23 teams. The league’s board of governors is scheduled to meet in mid April in Los Angeles.