SEATTLE — In his state of the league address ahead of Sunday’s MLS Cup final between Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders, commissioner Don Garber didn’t make a lot of news while discussing a number of topics–including the ongoing labor talks. But he did give a clearer indication than ever that Charlotte is in the driver’s seat to become the league’s 30th team as MLS’s expansion continues at a breakneck pace.
“There are three markets that we’re looking at, that our expansion committee has been engaging: Charlotte, Las Vegas and Phoenix. It’s fair to say that Charlotte has done a lot of work to move their bid really to the front of the line,” Garber said.
MLS is expanding at a rapid rate, with teams already set to join the league in 2020 (Nashville and Miami), 2021 (Austin) and 2022 (Sacramento and St. Louis). In addition to building soccer stadiums in their markets, the ownership groups in Sacramento and St. Louis will pay expansion fees of $200 million. The 30th team is expected to pay a $300 million expansion fee.
If Charlotte gets an MLS team, Garber did say that the team would play in the city’s NFL stadium, not in a new soccer stadium.
Charlotte’s appeal, Garber said, “starts with David Tepper, the owner of the Panthers, who’s a very passionate guy about sports, very passionate about Charlotte, and is reminding us that the league didn’t really see what Atlanta would become. I’d be the first to admit that. There’s a lot of things happening in Charlotte that are very similar to things that are happening in Atlanta in terms of the diversity of the fanbase and a lot of the corporate energy that’s going on down there. We’ve been engaged with them, and we’ll continue to do so.”
Garber did say that Team 30 was not yet a done deal for Charlotte, but he added that an official announcement will likely come in the "next number of months." That timeframe in itself suggests that MLS likely knows which city it wants to go to next.
Soccer fans (and ownership groups) in Las Vegas and Phoenix shouldn’t necessarily look at Garber’s statements on Friday as bad news. Garber himself has said recently that he could see the league expanding beyond 30 teams, and Vegas and Phoenix’s inclusion in Garber’s list of three candidates on Friday means they are almost certainly next in line.
Not being included at all in Garber’s list of cities would be discouraging news, however, for other cities with MLS aspirations like San Diego, Detroit, Tampa Bay, Indianapolis and Raleigh.