SEATTLE — MLS commissioner Don Garber said Friday that the league’s next expansion announcement is very likely to come in “the next number of months” and that Charlotte, North Carolina, has moved to the front of the line in terms of candidates.
Speaking at the annual state of the league address ahead of Sunday’s MLS Cup final between the host Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC (3 p.m. ET, watch live on ABC), Garber touched on a variety of topics, noting that five teams — in Miami; Nashville, Tennessee; Austin, Texas; St. Louis; and Sacramento, California — will come online over the course of the next several seasons.
But the news about further expansion revealed an acceleration in the timeline for team No. 30. As recently as last month’s expansion announcement for Sacramento, Garber hinted that the league would take its time in announcing the 30th team. Now it appears that thinking has changed. Garber added that Las Vegas and Phoenix are also among the top contenders, although they are playing catch-up.
“It’s fair to say that Charlotte has done a lot of work, to move their bid really to the front of line,” Garber said. “It starts with David Tepper, the owner of the [Carolina] Panthers. He’s a very passionate guy about sport, he’s very passionate about Charlotte.”
One stumbling block has been the Charlotte bid’s plan to play at Bank of America Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Panthers. The venue’s capacity of 75,523 is much larger than what MLS usually prefers for an expansion team’s home, but Garber indicated that Tepper has been pointing to the success of Atlanta United — which plays its games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home to the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons — as an example of the potential upside.
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“[Tepper] is reminding us that the league didn’t see what Atlanta would become,” Garber said. “I would be the first to admit that. There are lots of things happening in Charlotte that are very similar to the things that are happening in Atlanta in terms of the diversity of their fan base and a lot of the corporate energy that’s going on down there. We’ve been engaged with them and will continue to do so. … I think the Carolinas are a good state for soccer. You know that from the women’s soccer perspective and the youth soccer perspective. Should we be able to move forward, and end up with a team in Charlotte, I’m confident we’ll be successful.”
Las Vegas is in talks with the Baupost Group and its chief executive, Seth Klarman, over the building of a 25,000-seat stadium. That venue would be part of a proposed redevelopment of a 62-acre site that includes Cashman Field, the home of USL Championship side the Las Vegas Lights. Baupost would also purchase the Lights contingent on the company and Las Vegas entering into a master development agreement.
Phoenix has long been eyed by MLS as a potential expansion market, with USL Championship side Phoenix Rising — with an ownership group that includes Didier Drogba, Advantage Sports Union CEO Alex Zheng and club governor Berke Bakay — enjoying considerable success both on and off the field, with the team claiming the Western Conference regular-season title last season.