All the time, people who don't follow soccer too closely ask me, "what's the deal with this MLS expansion thing?" I figured it would be nice to have a clear and concise guide to quickly cover the basics of MLS expansion for people not in the know.

What is MLS?

MLS, or Major League Soccer, is the top-tier professional soccer league in the United States (and Canada). You can think of it as the soccer equivalent to leagues like the NFL, NBA, and MLB. It's not as big as those other leagues, of course, but lately it has been really taking off and is expected to significantly grow its market in the next several years.

MLS is divided into two conferences, Eastern and Western. Here are the 22 teams that currently play in MLS (as of 2017):

Eastern Western
Atlanta United FC Colorado Rapids
Chicago Fire FC Dallas
Columbus Crew SC Houston Dynamo
D.C. United LA Galaxy
Montreal Impact Minnesota United FC
New England Revolution Portland Timbers
New York City FC Real Salt Lake
New York Red Bulls San Jose Earthquakes
Orlando City SC Seattle Sounders FC
Philadelphia Union Sporting Kansas City
Toronto FC Vancouver Whitecaps FC

It's also worth mentioning that there are two other professional soccer leagues in the United States: the USL (United Soccer League) and the NASL (North American Soccer League). They're both considered to be at the second-tier of U.S. soccer; that is, they're on the same level as Minor League Baseball, the NBA Development League, etc.

What's the deal with expansion?

MLS currently has 22 teams, but they have announced plans to expand to 28 teams. The big question is, which teams are they going to accept, and when will those teams start MLS play?

MLS has said they intend to bring in new teams in three rounds of two teams each. In each round, they will bring in one team for the Eastern Conference and one team for the Western Conference. (They're bringing them in at the same time so the conferences stay balanced.)

The first expansion round has already been announced: Los Angeles FC will start play in 2018, and a new Miami team will probably start in 2019 (they got delayed by issues securing a site to build their stadium).

The second and third expansion rounds are the big unknowns. MLS has said they will decide on the second round teams and likely announce them in December 2017. These teams will start play in 2020. The third round will be announced at some later date and will start play in 2022.

What cities are they considering?

Back in January 2017, MLS accepted bids for the second expansion round, and received 12 submissions for teams in the following cities.

East West
Charlotte, NC Phoenix, AZ
Cincinnati, OH Sacramento, CA
Detroit, MI San Antonio, TX
Indianapolis, IN San Diego, CA
Nashville, TN  
Raleigh/Durham, NC  
St. Louis, MO  
Tampa/St. Petersburg, FL  

All of these cities (except Detroit and San Diego) already have an existing (or announced) soccer team playing in the USL or NASL. Many of the MLS bids are being made by the owners of the USL/NASL teams, so those lower-level teams would shut down in favor of the new MLS team.

MLS will only be accepting two teams from each region, so there is a lot more competition in the east (8 bids) than in the west (4 bids).

Which cities are going to win?

Well, that's the million-dollar question, isn't it? MLS has laid out four criteria they're looking for in the expansion candidates (in order of importance):

  1. Ownership. The team's owners need to be committed for the long-term and they need to have plenty of capital (they'll have to pay a $150 million fee to the MLS just for the privilege of joining).
  2. Stadium. The team needs to have government-approved plans to build a soccer-specific stadium (i.e. a stadium exclusively for soccer) where the team will control revenue (e.g. naming rights, concessions, parking, etc).
  3. Market. The team needs to be in a large television/media market.
  4. Supporters. There needs to be evidence of local support/interest for soccer.

If you ask me, Sacramento and Cincinnati are the strongest candidates, and they're my best guess for the second expansion round (note: I am biased as an FC Cincinnati supporter). Detroit, Nashville, Phoenix, San Antonio, and Tampa all also have pretty strong bids. Charlotte, San Diego, and St. Louis are all pretty much out of the running after they each failed to get public funding for their stadiums. However, no team is completely eliminated from consideration at this point in time.

That's a super brief summary, but there are a ton of wildcards and technicalities involved in all this. In the interest of keeping this short, I won't go in-depth on each city's bid (maybe in a future blog post?). If you're hungry for more, I recommend checking out these links:

[discuss on /r/MLS]