The MLS expansion landscape is never static for long and it has shifted again—this time in Cincinnati’s favor and perhaps even Detroit’s.

By Brian Straus
April 06, 2018

The MLS expansion landscape is never static for long and on Friday, it shifted again—this time in Cincinnati’s favor and perhaps even Detroit’s.

While MLS president and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott was visiting the Motor City, which fell behind in the expansion race following the decision to pitch Ford Field as its venue, FC Cincinnati took a big step toward making its downtown dream a reality thanks to a preliminary agreement with city council members.

There’s still no West End stadium deal in place for FCC, but Friday’s announcement could wind up being a turning point in a saga that’s been dragging. Cincinnati was considered a heavy favorite to land an expansion slot (alongside Nashville) once Detroit pivoted to Ford Field and it became clear that Sacramento Republic required significant additional investment. FCC had the money, the fan base and three stadium sites from which to choose.

But of those three, there really was only one that excited the league—the West End site sitting between the University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium, where FCC now plays, and the Ohio River to the south. The club had made more progress in suburban Oakley. But to get the country’s 36th-largest media market over the hump, something a bit more spectacular was required.

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On Thursday night, FCC GM Jeff Berding issued a statement to local media acknowledging, “Experience shows that successful MLS teams have stadiums in the urban core. … [and] we do not believe Oakley is the best fit for a move into MLS at this time.” He added that the club still lacked site control across the river in Newport, Kentucky, which was the third option.

It was West End or bust.

Friday morning, Cincinnati city councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, a Democrat whose support was considered key to freeing up several votes, announced his endorsement of a West End stadium deal. Like all public-private partnerships, this one is complex. And it still needs to be formally voted on by the council and approved by the public school board, since it involves the relocation of a high school stadium. But the parameters appeared to be in place.

In exchange for $33.8 million in public infrastructure support (less than what was offered for Oakley) and access to the land, FCC agreed to pay the full $25 million in applicable property taxes and replace the high school venue occupying the site with a $10 million facility nearby. In addition, the club promised to steer $15 million in affordable housing development toward the West End and made a commitment to spend tens of millions of dollars at minority and women-owned businesses.

FCC and owner Carl Lindner III will pay for the 21,000-seat stadium. The school board is expected to vote next week on whether to sell its piece of the property to FCC, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer. And the MLS board of governors is scheduled to meet April 17 in Los Angeles, where they potentially could sign off on FCC’s bid if it’s already been given the green light locally.

In a Friday afternoon statement, Berding said, "FCC appreciates all of our leaders at City Hall who are working to bring Major League Soccer to the Queen City. We thank Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld and Councilman David Mann for their leadership with this proposal today. We also recognize any final deal will only be possible due to the ongoing support and continued leadership from Mayor John Cranley, Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman, Councilwoman Amy Murray and Councilman Jeff Pastor. I am as hopeful as ever that city leaders will get this done and look forward to working with these leaders and others in the days ahead on this significant economic development opportunity."

Even if April 17 is too soon (the board meeting was going to take place regardless), FCC now is as close as it’s been to final MLS approval. That leaves Detroit, Sacramento and, officially, the eight other groups/cities that initially bid last year, to vie for spots 27 and 28.

Abbott’s visit to Detroit doesn’t mean potential owners Dan Gilbert and Tom Gores, who are now working with the Lions and the Ford family, have altered their bid or become favorites. But it does mean MLS is continuing to cover its bases as the convoluted expansion process plays out. Even Nashville and Miami, who’ve been awarded teams, continue to encounter crossroads or complications. MLS still isn’t thrilled by the prospect of Ford Field, especially compared to the downtown development Gilbert originally had proposed. But the size of the market (13th in the USA) and wealth of the investment group will continue to entice—especially if competing cities can’t pull their bids together.

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Sacramento, whose Republic FC continues to play on in USL, remains the most likely MLS landing spot after Cincinnati. Republic is ready to build at the Railyards and has everything in place but the final piece of the puzzle—the billionaire investor ready to take the baton from Kevin Nagle. The club remains in discussion with several potential investors, some of whom already have ownership interests in other sports leagues. Among them is Ron Burkle, a 65-year-old Californian who holds a stake in the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins.

Republic represents an intriguing opportunity. For an owner who wants to build a brand or team in his own image, it may not work. But for someone who wants to get into MLS with minimal fuss, Sacramento is close to ideal. Just about everything else is in place, and it’s believed the league is eager to welcome Republic to the fold if and when it's ready. And that’s likely to be the case regardless of whether Cincinnati’s West End pursuit comes to a successful conclusion.

If Cincinnati and Sacramento both join MLS, that’ll leave one spot remaining of the promised 28. Excluding Detroit, Phoenix has made the most progress in recent months, landing a lead investor and unveiling its stadium design. Bidders in San Diego and Raleigh are among the others who remain active.

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