North Carolina FC, Tampa Bay Rowdies Enter MLS Expansion Picture

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From Last Word on Soccer, by Joe Hojnacki

The line for and MLS expansion team is growing outside of Don Garber’s door. On Tuesday, two new teams showed up in the back. North Carolina FC, formerly Carolina RailHawks of the NASL, and Tampa Bay Rowdies of the USL threw themselves into the ever increasing pile of cities looking to bring Major league Soccer to town.

North Carolina FC, Tampa Bay Rowdies Enter MLS Expansion Picture

These teams join a queue that already contains four other markets that have held events of some kind announcing a desire to bring MLS in. Detroit, Sacramento, Cincinnati, and St. Louis are all hoping to land franchises. Add those to the already confirmed Los Angeles FC for 2018 and the possible addition of Miami a year later and we have eight cities looking to have an MLS team in the next few years. This is before we get to other places rumored to be poking around the MLS camp. San Diego, Austin, San Antonio, Phoenix, and even Louisville have all been mentioned in the past as potential MLS cities.

Let’s take a look at this latest batch of incoming bids for MLS expansion.

North Carolina FC

Carolina RailHawks are one of the founding franchises of the NASL. They have existed in form since 2006, when they joined the old USL PRO. In 2010, they were taken over by the disgraced Traffic Sports, who ran the team until current owner Steven Malik took over. On Tuesday, they announced a rebranding of the team as North Carolina FC and brought to light their intention to join MLS. They unveiled new red, white, and blue colors and a badge that looks suspiciously similar to the MLS logo.

The Raleigh based club currently plays in WakeMed Soccer Park, which holds 10,000 fans. With that being far too small for MLS, they looking to build a 24,000 seat stadium somewhere in the state of North Carolina. While Raleigh is prefered, they are open to building a team anywhere in “the Triangle,” which also brings Durham, Cary, and Chapel Hill into the equation. When you brand yourselves as being the “new state of soccer,” there are plenty of options for a city to host your team. Costs for such a stadium could exceed $150 million and no specific site has been named yet.

The RailHawks have been around since before the NASL. They have been one of the more successful franchises in the league’s history. They are one of three original franchises still in the almost dead league. FC Edmonton and Fort Lauderdale Strikers are still around. Rumors are swirling they are jumping to the USL should the league meet its demise.

The RailHawks had the unique distinction as the only NASL team to see an attendance increase from 2015 to 2016. While their average attendance was a mere 3,093, that was 11.4% higher than it was last season.

Tampa Bay Rowdies

The Tampa Bay Rowdies were the first domino to fall in the collapse of the NASL. They left the league for the USL along with Ottawa Fury at the end of the 2016 season. Now, with the launch of the #MLS2StPete campaign, they are looking to become an MLS team in the coming years.

The Rowdies are also an NASL founding franchise. They began with the league in 2010 and won the Soccer Bowl title in 2012. Their majority owner, Bill Edwards, is currently on a lawsuit rampage around the NASL. They are suing Fort Lauderdale Strikers over unpaid loan debts and have named the league as a defendant. He owns a lot of property and plenty of businesses in and around St. Petersburg, where the Rowdies call home. He’s a somewhat scummy character. While he was president of Mortgage Investors Corp, he was fined $7.5 million for violating the federal no call list and was later sued by the United States Justice Department over mortgage fraud. Seems like he would fit in quite well with many major sports owners throughout the country.

Unlike their counterparts in North Carolina, they have a more concrete stadium plan. They unveiled a privately financed plan to renovate Al Lang Stadium, where they currently play. It would increase the capacity from 7,500 up to at least 18,000, which is more in line with MLS standards. The private financing is what I like the most about this plan and what will probably move it along quickly. One could argue that they are further along than David Beckham’s Miami project, with still doesn’t have a site for their proposed, publicly financed, stadium. Not to mention the renderings of a stadium that overlooks the bay look pretty cool.

Of these two newest bids, I like this one better overall. The Rowdies have larger attendance numbers in the NASL than the RailHawks did and have a little more of a legacy to go along with it. The Rowdies were one of the premier franchises of the original NASL back in the 1970s and 80s. They also have a defined stadium renovation plan that won’t be difficult to get done. Unlike North Carolina, who don’t have a site or any sort of design picked out.

Updated Expansion Rankings

With two new teams added to the mix, here is the order I expect them to get picked in:

  1. Miami
  2. Sacramento
  3. Cincinnati
  4. St. Louis
  5. Detroit
  6. Tampa Bay
  7. North Carolina

With 23 teams already confirmed for 2018, there are theoretically only five spots available. Tampa and North Carolina are contingent on Don Garber willing to pass the self imposed 28 team barrier. Miami could fall through, opening up another spot, but David Beckham and the league have put far too much effort into that fantasy to let it die out. It should also be said that the Tampa Bay plan is pretty solid and they could jump over Detroit unless the group of Motor City billionaires can get their stadium site nailed down soon.

The tidal wave of expansion isn’t going to stop, it seems. Garber has said the league is going to stop once it hits 28 teams, but I have a hard time believing that. With cities continuing to line up outside his office looking for a piece of single entity pie, and offering expansion fees that have to total more than $1 billion, I can’t see him saying no to a jump to 30, if not more, teams in the near future.