In addition to significantly impacting the 2020 season, the coronavirus pandemic has another knock-on effect on MLS: delaying the entry of three of the four expansion teams lined up to join the league.
Charlotte (slated to join in 2021) and St. Louis and Sacramento (2022) have had their entry dates pushed by a year, slowing the league's rapid growth and extending the expansion to 30 teams until 2023. Austin FC will join as scheduled, becoming the league's 27th team in 2021.
The reasoning centers on the pandemic's impact on the ability for stadiums to either be built or renovated and for staffs to be assembled in the three markets that have been forced to endure the yearlong delays. The stadium construction in St. Louis and Sacramento has yet to begin, while significant and costly renovations to the Carolina Panthers' Bank of America Stadium, where Charlotte will play, have been put on hold as well. Instead of having the clubs begin at unideal, temporary venues, they'll have to roll with the punches dealt by the global situation. According to a source with knowledge of the decision, there were no conversations about moving to temporary facilities, and the choices to postpone entry were collaborative, not a league mandate.
“We have always taken a thoughtful and strategic approach to our expansion planning and have delivered successful launches for every new club,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said in a statement. “It is important for each club to take the necessary time to launch their inaugural MLS seasons the way their fans and communities deserve. With the extra year to make up for what has been a challenging 2020, these teams will be well-positioned for their debuts and for long-term success.”
Charlotte had been ramping up its efforts ahead of what it thought was a 2021 arrival. It just signed its first player, Racing Santander's Sergio Ruiz, with plans to loan him until preseason camp. He figures to have another year on loan ahead of him. On top of that, the club is due to reveal its branding this coming Wednesday, teasing potential team names and a sliver of the crest on social media. That remains on schedule.
“When we were awarded the team in December, we knew we were on an extremely tight timeline to begin play in 2021, but we were ready to meet that challenge," Charlotte MLS president Tom Glick said. "Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted several of our essential initiatives. We have made huge progress in the last few months but having additional time to build is important.”
Austin had a significantly longer runway, given that it was awarded its team in January 2019, and it also has not had construction setbacks, allowing for an on-time delivery and a 2021 start to life in the league. Like Charlotte, it also recently announced the signing of its first player, Paraguayan forward Rodney Redes.
For Sacramento, the added wait may feel especially cruel after the prolonged wait to be given an expansion berth. It took five years from Garber's "it’s less about if, and more about when" proclamation for the bid to come to fruition, and it'll be eight in total before the club takes to the field as an MLS team. Sacramento Republic will remain in the second-tier USL Championship through 2022 as a result of the decision.
“Our goal remains the same–to build the best stadium and MLS club befitting the wonderful Sacramento region. With an additional year, we can better adjust for the impact of the pandemic on our community and identify how we can best serve the neighbors and friends that have supported our club on its rise to Major League Soccer,” said Republic FC investor Matt Alvarez. “We will bring Sacramento into the top-tier of American soccer ready to compete at a championship level, and create an opportunity to support the next era of regional growth with a world-class venue and a commitment to continued community investment.”
St. Louis has by far the longest to go, and the extra year could be seen as a blessing. Whereas Sacramento is already an active sporting operation, St. Louis's front office, technical staff and branding are all TBD. The club also needs to build a new stadium and its team headquarters.
“We’ve been working closely with the league and collectively agreed that the adjusted timeline was the best decision to position our club for a historic launch and long-term success,” said St. Louis MLS CEO Carolyn Kindle Betz.
It's unclear what the decision will mean for league alignment, and MLS will have to endure again through having an odd number of teams, which will create its own scheduling headaches. As for the 2020 expansion draft, it will belong solely to Austin instead of being shared between Austin and Charlotte, and there are no plans to stray from the five-pick format.