By: Kevin Wallace
FC Cincinnati find themselves in the dog days of summer chasing a USL playoff berth for the second consecutive year. However, while the club’s league performances have not quite lived up to last year’s incredible inaugural campaign, FC Cincinnati did do well in the U.S. Open Cup. In fact, FC Cincinnati currently holds a 2-1 overall record against Major League Soccer (MLS) clubs. This Cinderella story of epic proportions has a lot of people asking how does FC Cincinnati not get an invitation to join MLS?
Going back to January of this year, twelve different teams/cities submitted bids to join MLS. Those twelve bids were from Raleigh, Charlotte, Tampa Bay, Nashville, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Detroit, San Antonio, Saint Louis, Phoenix, Sacramento, and San Diego. Most of them have current USL or NASL teams attached to their bids, but not all of them. Detroit and San Diego would be new teams built from scratch, and Nashville will have a team eventually, joining USL in the Spring of 2018.
As of right now, we expect MLS to extend an invitation to two teams at the beginning of December, with two more invitations being offered by 2020. That will bring the total number of MLS teams to 28. MLS could expand beyond 28 teams and if I could speculate if there was such a thing as a “hard cap” on the number of teams in MLS, that number is probably 32. It is worth pointing out here that FIFA has a guideline that top-flight leagues be limited to twenty teams. But in years past, FIFA has mandated that leagues cap themselves to eighteen teams, and well, the world collectively shrugged its shoulders and ignored FIFA.
But what everyone wants to know is, will their city make the cut? Or more specifically for us here in Cincinnati, will FC Cincinnati be on the receiving end of a Don Garber invitation to MLS? Well, that depends on a number of things. What it does not depend on though, is their performance on the field. As nice as it would be to let play on the field determine who is promoted to the top division, it simply does not matter how well the team is doing. Advancing deep in the Open Cup might make it look bad for MLS to skip over FC Cincinnati, but it would in no way force their hand. There are many other factors at play.
If we look at how MLS has tried to expand these past few years, it becomes clear that they like their geographic parity. They are not 100% locked in to adding a team to both conferences at once, but they do have a track-record of doing so. MLS added NYCFC and Orlando in 2015, which allowed the league to rebalance its conferences and move Kansas City and Houston to the West. Since then, MLS has tried to add one team to the Eastern Conference and one team in the Western Conference when expanding. This year, Atlanta was added to the East and Minnesota added to the West. In 2018, David Beckham’s Miami expansion was supposed to join the league in alongside LAFC, but since the Miami team has taken so long to get off the ground, LAFC will be joining by itself this coming year. I would expect Miami to join the league in 2020.
We know MLS likes to keep their conferences even because they have re-aligned the conference based on new teams constantly over the years, it is probably best to look at the expansion cities based on which conference they would fall into. That breakdown looks like this:
East: Raleigh, Charlotte, Tampa Bay, Nashville, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Saint Louis, and Detroit.
West: San Antonio, Phoenix, Sacramento, and San Diego.
Saint Louis is in an advantageous position where it could easily be added to either conference. You could make strong arguments about how they would have a rivalry with Kansas City or Chicago, so it is hard to say where they would go. For now, I am going to say they would be in the East, if for nothing other than the fact that they play in the Eastern Conference in USL.
Now we will look at this from an FC Cincinnati fan’s perspective. There are seven other teams in the Eastern pool of teams that we are competing against, so how do we match up?
Charlotte: Their city council had a formal vote to kill any deal involving a stadium with the city and the county does not want to play ball either. In fact, there was a bit of controversy around this one, with MLS officials and government officials meeting secretly that made a lot of people down there upset. We can go ahead and say this bid has no chance this round and is on life support going forward.
Indianapolis: This would have been a solid contender, but they were probably the first bid to die. Indianapolis needed public funding for their stadium, and it was not on the books for 2018. With this news, the bid is officially waiting for the next round.
Saint Louis: MLS really wanted a team in Saint Louis. Saint Louis is the spiritual capital of US Soccer, and having just lost their NFL franchise, the city was a perfect expansion candidate. Unfortunately for them, their ownership group needed funding from the city, and that avenue needed to be approved by a public vote. And the team lost that vote. You have probably heard rumors about another investor coming in to save this bid for a while, but with the clock ticking, it is safe to assume this bid is going nowhere this round.
Nashville: Nashville’s bid is certainly interesting. They have a solid ownership group, a decent market, and something resembling a stadium plan. While the details have yet to be worked out, they do have the city on board with $150 million dollars to be put towards a soccer facility in their proposed budget, and the state’s blessing at that. That is probably enough to get it done. As far the market and demographics go, Nashville is in a virtual tie with Cincinnati on things like TV market, Fortune 500 companies, and percentage of population under the age of 35. The one thing Nashville does not yet have is a professional soccer team, but the city did show up in large numbers for a CONCACAF Gold Cup match (47,622) and an ICC match (56,232). It could also be worth noting that Nashville and Atlanta would immediately have a regional rivalry and would help push soccer in the historically soccer-stubborn south.
Raleigh: Raleigh is a very strong bid. They have a solid owner, a goal of having a privately financed stadium, and are in a region of the country that is booming both in population and soccer talent. They are attached to the current NASL team North Carolina FC and have above average attendance for the second division. On paper their media market is not great, however, it would be likely that the entire state of North Carolina would follow this team. While they do have a downtown location picked out, the group still needs to work things out if the various state and local governments. Expect that to be sorted out over the next few months. This would also be a new geographic region for MLS to be in.
Tampa Bay / St. Petersburg: The Rowdies jumped ship from the NASL to the USL just as their owner, Bill Edwards, put into motion their plans to join MLS. The Rowdies have everything in place: a massive media market, a stadium that is all set to be expanded having passed their public vote test, and they have a dedicated and passionate following in Tampa. Really, on the face of it, there is nothing holding the Rowdies back. Nothing except history that is. Bill Edwards is a notoriously difficult person to get along with, just ask the NASL. After loaning money to the league to keep another Florida team afloat, Edwards and the NASL ended up in a legal battle that saw Edwards taking ownership of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, and then failing to auction them off. Then there is the problem of the short lived MLS team, the Tampa Bay Mutiny. Now, there were a number of factors that played a role in the Mutiny failing to stay in operation, but it is still something to say that “MLS has already failed in Tampa Bay.” With David Beckham heading up a new team in Miami, maybe Tampa could join in, expelling MLS of its old contraction-demons. It could make the southeast crowded from an MLS perspective, with Orlando, Miami, and Atlanta already set and several other quality expansion markets eyeing that region.
So with the cities mentioned, that leaves Raleigh, Nashville, and Tampa Bay as the only real competitors to FC Cincinnati’s bid. There are pluses and minuses to each bid. MLS could really take any of these four teams and it would make good business sense. But astute readers will notice there is one eastern team that was not mentioned. There is a specter haunting the east, the specter of Detroit.
Detroit: Detroit’s bid should frighten FC Cincinnati supporters. Detroit is a massive TV market, the last of the top ten without an MLS team. The bid has two billionaire owners behind it, both who own two NBA teams, an AHL team, and an Arena Football team between them. They have a downtown location in mind and are currently negotiating with the city of Detroit to demolish and rebuild a jail that is not even completed yet. This is a serious money bid that has an insane amount of capital behind it. Up until this point though, it has looked like the jail site would not work out for the MLS bid, or at least not anytime soon, so it was thought to be stalled. There have been some recent rumors, however, that a deal is close to being reached on the site. And that is a problem for FC Cincinnati.
Detroit checks all of the boxes a Cincinnati MLS team would, but more so. They have a much, much better TV market, geographic rivalries with Columbus and Chicago, they would have a downtown stadium, and the support of the entire state of Michigan behind them. There would be no reason why MLS would take Cincinnati and Detroit, which would just see MLS double up on teams in the Midwest, while not putting a team in the south, the Carolinas, or in California. And if you look at this in two rounds, maybe the next round would see a more competitive bid from Saint Louis put forward. Cincinnati would then be extremely superfluous. In simple terms, if Detroit is a go, or even appears to be close, then in all likelihood, Cincinnati would struggle to get an MLS invitation.
Now that everyone in Cincinnati is bummed, it is worth pointing out that Detroit is only rumored to be making progress with the city on their location. It is possible that a deal is not reached and the team is either forced to be far outside of the city, or the ownership group just joins another MLS bid. There is also the small thorn in Detroit’s side that is Detroit City FC. DCFC has a small, passionate, fan base that regularly outdraws teams in the USL and NASL. The fans there helped renovate a stadium and there are more and more rumors of the DCFC group moving into the professional ranks in the very near future. It is extremely unlikely that DCFC would interfere with an MLS bid, but it might be worth keeping an eye on, especially if DCFC joins a professional league in the next six month.
So of the teams in the east, Cincinnati has a great shot at getting in MLS, assuming Detroit is not a part of the equation. The west might as well be a different competition from the east, and it is unlikely that bids in the west impact bids in the east. The best way to show this is by assigning a “percent chance” these cities have their MLS bids accepted in these next two rounds of MLS expansion:
Round 1 (December 2017)
Tampa Bay (20%)
North Carolina (20%)
Round 2 (by 2020)
San Diego (40%)
San Antonio (5%)
Saint Louis (15%)
Tampa Bay (7%)
North Carolina (6%)
FC Cincinnati needs to get in on this first round, or other, larger, bids are going to have time to get their affairs in order and make better arguments for their MLS invitation. FC Cincinnati does have one thing that no other bid has: incredible fan support. Sacramento and Tampa Bay draw well, but FC Cincinnati is on another level as far as fan support goes. Cincinnati might be a smaller market, but this market is hungry for soccer. Cities like Denver and Salt Lake City wish they could have the support FC Cincinnati gets.
The Bailey has a reputation around the country as being one of the loudest, most intimidating stands in the US game. New York Red Bulls Coach Jesse Marsch commented that Cincinnati is “the best American soccer crowd I’ve ever seen.” There is a lot to be optimistic about as an FC Cincinnati supporter, and regardless of what Don Garber and MLS decide to do, this team is something we have all built to last. Whatever league, whatever opponent, whatever venue, “wherever you go we’ll follow, we’ll follow, we’ll follow”