5 Potential Locations for the Next MLS Expansion Team

By Ben Morris in Soccer
| June 21, 2021 7:23 am PDT
MLS Expansion Teams

When billionaire businessman Ron Burkle announced that he would no longer be fronting a bid to bring Major League Soccer to Sacramento, MLS expansion plans were dealt a big blow.

North America’s top-flight soccer league was supposed to grow to 30 teams by 2023, with Charlotte FC and St. Louis City SC joining in the coming years. But with Sacramento out of the picture – at least for now – Major League Soccer needs a new expansion team.

Following Austin FC’s successful integration this year, 27 clubs currently compete in the league.

MLS commissioner Don Garber has even hinted at a 32-team league in the future, meaning there could be multiple places up for grabs. So, where will the next MLS expansion team (or teams) be based?

Join me as I look at Major League Soccer’s expansion history and assess the leading candidates to become the newest expansion club in MLS.

Major League Soccer’s Expansion History

Major League Soccer first kicked off back in 1996, although plans to expand the league didn’t commence until almost a decade later. The ten founding members were joined by a further ten teams between 2005 and 2015 – doubling the league’s size.

First Growth Phase

Los Angeles and Salt Lake City were handed the first-ever MLS expansion berths, with Chivas USA and Real Salt Laker entering the league in 2005.

  • 2005: Los Angeles (Chivas USA), Salt Lake City (Real Salt Lake)
  • 2007: Toronto (Toronto FC)
  • 2009: Seattle (Seattle Sounders)
  • 2010: Philadelphia (Philadelphia Union)
  • 2011: Vancouver (Vancouver Whitecaps), Portland (Portland Timbers)
  • 2012: Montreal (Montreal Impact)
  • 2015: New York (New York City FC), Orlando (Orlando City)

In 2007, Toronto became the first Canadian city to host a Major League Soccer club before Seattle and Philadelphia were granted access in 2009 and 2010, respectively.

Vancouver and Montreal took the total number of Canadian MLS teams to three after the turn of the decade, while Portland brought the Timbers to the party.

The final year of the league’s first growth phase saw New York gain another club, with NYCFC rivaling the Red Bulls. Orlando also joined in 2015.

Second Growth Phase

Atlanta and Minnesota got the second growth phase underway in 2017. Since then, five more MLS expansion teams have entered the league.

  • 2017: Atlanta (Atlanta United), Minnesota (Minnesota United)
  • 2018: Los Angeles (LAFC)
  • 2019: Cincinnati (FC Cincinnati)
  • 2020: Miami (Inter Miami), Nashville (Nashville SC)
  • 2021: Austin (Austin FC)

Following the dissolution of Chivas USA in 2014, Los Angeles FC was born. LAFC took the number of Los Angeles-based Major League Soccer clubs back up to two, alongside the Galaxy.

Cincinnati then joined the league in 2019 before Inter Miami and Nashville boosted MLS to 26 teams a year later.

Major League Soccer’s newest expansion team, Austin FC, is currently competing in its maiden top-flight campaign. With Dallas and Houston already established, Texas now has three MLS clubs – the joint-most of any state.

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Confirmed MLS Expansion Teams

Major League Soccer will touch down in North Carolina in 2022, with Charlotte becoming the 28th expansion team in MLS. When St. Louis enters the league in 2023, Missouri will also get its first top-flight soccer club.

  • 2022: Charlotte (Charlotte FC)
  • 2023: Louis (St. Louis City SC)

So, we know that both Charlotte and St. Louis will be competing in Major League Soccer soon. But who will be next? Let’s take a look at frontrunners to produce the next MLS expansion team.

Major League Soccer Coming to Las Vegas?

Let’s face it – having an MLS team in Las Vegas would be fun, wouldn’t it?

Sin City hasn’t always been among the leading candidates. However, it pushed Charlotte close for the 30th expansion place and has remained a realistic option ever since.

It feels like Vegas could be the perfect destination for a Major League Soccer club. With the popularity of sports betting continuing to rise, MLS has the potential to grow a new audience in the gambling capital of the world.

On top of that, the city is already home to USL Championship side Las Vegas Lights – so the foundations are already set.

The Lights boasted an average attendance of 7,711 during the 2019 season. For a second-tier soccer team in Nevada, those numbers are impressive. If Major League Soccer came to Vegas, those figures would surely skyrocket.

Will Detroit Be the Next MLS Expansion Team?

When Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert teamed up with Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores a few years back, soccer fans in Detroit were understandably excited.

The billionaire owners voiced plans to build a 23,000-seat soccer-specific stadium in the city and bring Major League Soccer to Michigan.

But everything changed in 2017. When the Ford family joined the bid, the owners of the Detroit Lions wanted to make Ford Field the new home of Detroit’s proposed MLS club. As a result, Motor City fell down the MLS expansion pecking order.

Major League Soccer already has a big following in the Midwest. With Sporting Kansas City, Columbus Crew, Chicago Fire, Minnesota United, and FC Cincinnati already in the region, a Michigan-based MLS team wouldn’t look out of place.

The city already has a professional soccer club – Detroit City FC. The NISA side has a decent fanbase, too, suggesting that a Michigan MLS club would be backed.

Could Phoenix Join Major League Soccer?

Phoenix has been in the MLS expansion conversation for several years now. In fact, Arizona’s state capital was among the 12 organizations that submitted a bid in 2017.

USL Championship club Phoenix Rising FC was behind the effort in 2017, and it’s thought that the club’s owners are still interested in pursuing the plans.

Rising’s ownership group contains a host of notable names. Led by Brett Johnson and Berke Bakay, the group includes celebrities such as Diplo (DJ) and Pete Wentz (Fall Out Boy), and former Chelsea forward Didier Drogba.

With the MLS expansion fee now above $300 million, Rising’s wealthy investors could play a key role in getting top-flight soccer to Arizona.

But perhaps most importantly, the people of Phoenix love their soccer. Rising recorded 23 consecutive sell-out crowds before the health crisis hit. Just imagine the crowds if Major League Soccer came to town.

What Makes San Diego an MLS Expansion Candidate?

It could be argued that San Diego is the ideal location for an MLS club.

Not only is the Californian city one of the 20 biggest metropolitan areas in the United States, but it is also steeped in soccer history.

Better still, the city’s geographical location makes it a perfect destination for Major League Soccer.

Situated adjacent to the Mexican border, San Diego is closely linked to Liga MX – and we all know that MLS is trying to enhance its relationship with Mexico’s top-flight league.

However, San Diego only recently secured an expansion slot in the USL Championship. Co-founded and managed by USMNT legend Landon Donovan, San Diego Loyal SC entered the second-tier division just last year.

While that doesn’t necessarily hinder San Diego’s MLS expansion bid, it does feel as though other cities are ahead of San Diego.

Is Sacramento Still a Realistic Option?

Although Sacramento is out of the equation, for the time being, it shouldn’t be ruled out altogether. After all, the Californian capital came agonizingly close to gaining Major League Soccer status.

Burkle was on the verge of taking over Sacramento Republic FC and transforming it into an MLS outfit. If Republic can find a new investor, the club could still move forward with the plans.

Of course, finding a new majority owner won’t be easy. Before he withdrew, Burkle originally agreed to pay a $200 million expansion fee back in 2019. With Charlotte paying in excess of $300 million to join the league, that fee will only be bigger now.

At the end of the day, the bulk of the foundations have been set. If Republic can find a new investor, Sacramento could still have a Major League Soccer club in the not-too-distant future.

Closing Thoughts

Love them or hate them – Major League Soccer’s expansion plans won’t be going away anytime soon.

Many believe that America’s top-flight soccer league already has more than enough teams. With Austin FC joining this year, the current number of MLS clubs stands at 27. The arrival of Charlotte and St. Louis will take that number to 29 by 2023.

Still, the league seems adamant about expanding to 32 sides in the coming years – giving cities like Las Vegas, Detroit, Phoenix, and San Diego a realistic chance of becoming the next MLS expansion team.

While taking Major League Soccer to Vegas would be fun for various reasons, I think Detroit and Phoenix stand the best chance at the moment. Both cities have pushed for an expansion berth in the past, meaning they are well equipped to bid again.

But as Sacramento has shown, securing an MLS expansion slot isn’t easy. Who knows? We could even see a completely new city make a bid sooner or later.

One thing is certain – as soon as we get more Major League Soccer expansion developments, you will be able to get the lowdown in our soccer blog.

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