Minnesota United FC is expected to join Major League Soccer (as reported by Sports Illustrated) on Wednesday, March 25, with the league and club officials holding a “major” announcement in Minneapolis. The announcement is expected at 11 a.m.
The club, currently playing in the North American Soccer League, beat out a rival bid by the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings. United intends to build an open-air, soccer-specific stadium in downtown Minneapolis — near Target Field. The Vikings plan would’ve seen a potential team share a domed stadium with the football team. The state’s governor, who backed the Vikings stadium plan with public money, has hinted that state will not offer financial help to MUFC owner Bill McGuire. (Oddly enough, this is sort of a political issue.)
If the name Minnesota United rings a bell, it’s probably because of Miguel Ibarra who is part of Jurgen Klinsmann’s U.S. national team set-up.
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Last summer, Minnesota fans (led by the incomparable Bruce McGuire — of DuNord Futbol podcast and NorthernPitch.com) brought a large contingent to a U.S. Open Cup game against Sporting KC. (Kansas City won the game, but it was a good showing by the visitors. This was also when KC was forced to wear its warm ups because of a kit clash with United’s primary. It has the potential to be a pretty cool rivalry for KC.)
The confirmation of MUFC brings the the league up to 23 teams with Atlanta and Los Angeles FC (formerly Chivas USA) already lined up for spots 21 and 22. Atlanta is expected to join in 2017. LAFC’s timeline is entirely dependent on progress toward a stadium. The timeline for MUFC is unknown, but they could join as early as 2017 depending on the stadium progress as well.
So, what’s next?
The race for the 24th spot is apparently down to the David Beckham and Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure project in Miami* and USL side Sacramento Republic FC. (I’d imagine the Miami project — despite the major setback of not having a stadium plan in place right now — would be a priority for the league. But Sacramento has some serious bonafides and seems ready to go.)
*Significant news, apparently, is planned for this summer for the Untitled David Beckham Franchise in Miami.
Commissioner Don Garber has said previously that he envisioned a 24-team league by 2020. However in previous dispatches and again over the weekend when Garber appeared on the Fox Sports 1 during halftime of the San Jose-Chicago game, he said the league is currently “evaluating” going beyond 24 teams.
It seems like a foregone conclusion the league will continue to grow. With the money coming from expansion fees (the league is asking for $100 million and received $110 million from LAFC) and the long-term TV rights in place (MLS is on Fox, ESPN and Univision until 2022), it’s not a matter of if the league goes above 24 teams. It’s when.
This is supply and demand 101. Owners (outside investors like Manchester City and Beckham/Claure as well as American-run clubs looking to move to the top tier) want in and MLS wants to reach more markets — and, the logic goes, expand TV ratings.
Whichever team loses out on spot 24 (Miami or Sacramento) would likely be a shoe-in to ride the next wave of expansion. And, should MLS follow the trend of essentially “promoting” lower-division sides (a la Portland, Montreal, Seattle, Orlando City and now Minnesota) and pushing into economically viable markets (with built-in rivalries) there might already be a waiting list for spots #26-30.
The San Antonio Scorpions (NASL), St. Louis FC (USL), Indianapolis Eleven (NASL) and one of the Carolina franchises (there are three: the Charlotte Independence and Wilmington Hammerheads FC in USL and the Carolina Railhawks* in NASL) all seem like legitimate contenders.
*As my Talkin’ Touches podcast colleague Andy Edwards pointed out: The Railhawks play in Cary, which is really close to Raleigh and three major universities — Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State. The college crowd is a huge market for a growing league like MLS
Las Vegas, which was withdrawn from consideration during this most-recent round, would also likely pop back up into the conversation. Currently, there are no professional sports in Sin City.
And, of course, we haven’t even touched upon emerging and/or enticing markets like Phoenix, San Diego, Austin or Detroit.
Soccer is growing awfully fast in America right now. And it’s not just at the MLS level. The lower tiers have expansion plans as well.
The NASL wants to expand to 18 to 20 teams (they currently have 11, but will lose MUFC soon). And USL has expanded from 11 teams in 2012 to 24 teams this season — boosted, of course, by seven MLS-run sides. That number could continue to grow as well.
It’s not out of the question — as crazy as it might have sounded in 2009 or even 2012 — that there could be as many as 60 professional teams spread across the three divisions by 2020.* We are living in strange and rapidly expanding times.