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A Primer/Preview ahead of the Slovenian Season
1 - What even is there?
It’s very easy to keep track of the Prva Liga via youtube where highlights are generally up within a couple of hours of the games finishing and are professional packages with plenty of gloss and these are available on the league website www.prvaliga.si along with notable goals, etc going up on the Prva Liga twitter account pretty much as soon as they happen. The odd second tier game is shown live on Youtube also with the third tier being regionalised. If you’re used to the set up of things from Croatia, the Slovenian leagues really aren’t much different.
Following the NZS (Slovenia’s FA) on Youtube is also a good idea as they show highlights from the Slovenian Cup and from the youth grades of the national sides - sometimes, even showing U21 games live. Of another special note are the coaching drills and presentations they post up occasionally which give a great insight into why Slovenian football is how it is and also provide an education that is accessible even if you don’t know the language.
2 - Is it decent?
Similar to many leagues in the region, they have a small cohort of good, affluent sides backed up by a series of teams far smaller. That said, there tends not to be as much in the way of financial crisis and whataboutery and more living within their means. Maribor, as seen in the Champions League last season, are of course the most well known side, swiftly followed by Olimpija Ljubljana, who reformed in the mid-2000s after falling into bankruptcy and are the closest Slovenia has to a basket case of a club. The third of the good teams are Domzale who are based just outside Ljubljana but are relatively moneyed and impressed in knocking Freiburg out of the Europa League last season. Play tends to be a bit more structured and a bit more recognisable to Western eyes than in Croatia, etc. This can, sometimes, be a bit staid and it’s very worth noting that the average goals per game tends to be on the low side (most leagues average in and around the 2.8 per game point, save for last season, Slovenia tends to average around the 2.5 mark - last season had a unique factor in Ankaran that skewed that up a bit). The league does contain attacking sides, but goals are much harder earned in Slovenia than in most places. If you like organised defences and well drilled set piece defence, the Slovenian Prva Liga is going to be something you’ll enjoy.
3 - What’s the atmosphere like?
Not great. Slovenia isn’t a big country and football isn’t the definitive number one sport (Winter Sports probably lead given the big mountains in the north west of the country) so, in spite of small stadia, full houses are very rare - Maribor’s domestic attendances broke 10,000 only once last season, averaging under 4,000 in a stadium which can only fit 12,000. While Olimpija’s Stozice is a little bigger, the story is the same. Those two clubs were the only ones in the top tier last season with an average attendance over 1,000 - that’s not necessarily a criticism of the league itself, but there are teams which often feel more like village clubs than clubs you would expect in the top tier of a national league. Add that to the fact that about half the stadia are multi-purpose and have an athletics track around (or, in the case of Krsko, a speedway track) and you get an atmosphere that is often sparse, particularly as “Ultras” culture is limited.
Slovenian weather is also unpredictable with two entire gameweeks wiped out by weather last season around the winter break - it’s mountainous topography means that any weather system tends to get stuck over much of the country a bit meaning some wild differences in the amount of rainfall experienced by the (small) coastline and the rest of the country, albeit everywhere is very pleasant in the late spring/summeearly autumn months.
On the upside, the oompah music played when Rudar score a goal is the best goal celebration music in the entirety of football
4 - Who are the teams and how are they likely to fare?
So, to preview the season.
After last season’s brilliant title race, in which Olimpija won the title in the last 15 minutes of the season thanks to Rok Kronaveter, this season should be similarly fun given behind the scenes changes across the league.
At Olimpija, Igor Biscan departed the club as manager at the end of the season after falling out with the club hierarchy who didn’t wish to back him in the transfer market. Given that Biscan had, in the space of a season, taken the club from being an absolute basket case into being the most defensively solid team in the league capable of overturning a massive financial disparity with Maribor, this was a return to typically silly form for the club. He’s been replaced by Serb Ilija Stolica who impressed at Vozdovac in his first half season of club management last term, then took over at Vojvodina and was far less convincing. In the transfer market, they’ve lost first teamers Filip Uremovic, Ricky Alves, Mitch Apau and Rijeka loanees Jason Davidson and Dario Canadija but have brought in interesting players in Macky Bagnack, Andrija Kaludjerovic and Marko Putincanin. In spite of these personnel changes, the CL game vs Qarabag saw little in the way of tactical changes but that’s likely not the best game in which to judge this side - certainly, the players brought in suggest a move to, potentially 3-4-3.
Meanwhile, Maribor have been in flux with the upheaval around the suspension and future of Zlatko Zahovic as Sporting Director given his current suspension from football after seemingly threatening to kill a journalist at a press conference and his apparent refusal to leave the club without the remaining years of his contract being paid off - not that him being a bit of an ass qualifies as news any more. Regardless, the team are much stronger now with the already arranged in January transfer of Kenan Piric giving the club a more reliable presence in goal than the ancient Jasmin Handanovic. Added to that, the signing of Nardin Mulahusejnovic brings them a promising striker who impressed in the Bosnian Liga12 last season andthe recent addition of Felipe Santos gives a creative outlet they often lacked last term. If Maribor don’t win the title, it will be a surprise but the unrest behind the scenes is unhelpful - particularly when the club’s main striker is none other than Zlatko Zahovic’s son, Luka.
Those looking outside the traditional big two will undoubtedly look on Domzale as contenders. Simon Rozman’s outfit are stable, ended last season in brilliant form and put to bed previous concerns about their mental strength against the big two. They’ve lost very little over the summer and their side looks to be an emerging one with Shamar Nicholson getting better game by game and also with the serious talent of Adam Gnezda Cerin looking like he will break into the first team properly this season. Darick Morris is an interesting signing from Dinamo, given the success of Filip Uremovic at Olimpija. They are both potent and settled and that makes them a danger in the title race.
Just behind those three could be NS Mura, this season’s promoted side. They have money and used it to good effect last term and the signing of Tomi Horvat from Maribor’s youth team is an eye catching one. I fancy them to do more than simply make up the numbers.
The other traditionally decent teams are Gorica, Celje and Rudar. Rudar are short of cash but started the season hot with a 7-0 first leg EL win over San Marino’s Tre Fiori - we can’t read too much into beating a team from San Marino, but it’s something to be confident about and they won’t mind having had the chance to get goals under the belt of Dominik Radic. With Djair Parfitt-Williams and Milan Tucic alongside, it’s a front line that is only going to improve as time goes on. They’ve also added Tim Vodeb this season, who you may have seen executing somersault throw-ins and doing it about a million times better than that Iranian lad from the World Cup.
Gorica fell apart last season after the sale of Rifet Kapic and the loss of striker Kyrian Nwabueze due to a heart condition that has now resulted in his retirement from football. Little has happened over the summer to suggest they will reverse that trend from last season as one of Slovenia’s traditionally big sides looks like it will struggle.
Finally, Celje’s main success this summer has been to keep the team together. The midfield line up of Lovro Cvek and Rudi Pozeg Vancas is, bluntly, awesome with RPV emerging as the best player in the league in the second half of last season. In fact, they’ve done barely any business this summer but if they can get their team in form and in sync, they have a good chance of European qualification.
Finally, the numbers are made up by Aluminij, Krsko and Triglav. Triglav avoided relegation in a playoff last season and, in spite of Luka Majcen possessing football’s greatest beard, things are unlikely to be much better this season, especially with top scorer Matej Poplatnik moving to India and defensive talent David Zec going to Benfica. Both Krsko and Aluminij have had a lot of ins and outs over the summer but both will expect to have enough to keep ahead of Triglav - keep an eye on Aluminij’s Francesco Tahiraj to potentially have a breakout season as he started to put it together on a regular basis towards the end of last term
5 - What games should I watch?
Any combination of Domzale, Maribor or Olimpija taking each other on is a good one to watch, albeit it’s worth noting that the Eternal derbies between Olimpija and Maribor tend to disappoint somewhat - save the last one of last season, there hadn’t been an entertaining game between the two for a couple of years. The first game of the season that should demand your attention comes on week three as Olimpija take on Celje at Stozice which is the first proper domestic test of Ilija Stolica against a really good side. Teams play each other in order over the repetitions of the league (so, if you play each other in week 1, you do in week 10, 19 and 28) so it’s easy to keep track as long as you can add 9 onto numbers - Olimpija-Maribor starts in Week 5, Domzale-Olimpija starts in week 6, and Maribor-Domzale in week 9.
Ranking each MLS expansion candidate heading into the 2020s - Part 2
Phoenix looks like a shoe-in based on numbers; high Hispanic population, large number of young people and one of the fastest growing cities in the United States.
Phoenix doesn't have a great reputation as a sports city, but there are factors to consider. Phoenix is a heavy transplant city, and transplants are a group MLS does well with, since MLS is a young brand, and many people don't have local soccer teams. In addition, the other teams are... eh. The Diamondbacks have been mediocre in their history beside a World Series win, the Cardinals are literally the worst franchise NFL history, the Coyotes have been awful for so long and might be Mayflower'd to Houston, and the Suns have been great, but are now trying to pull a Precourt.
Phoenix Rising SC are the current soccer team in the market. Since Didier Drogba and others took over the team in 2017, average attendance has been more than 6,000 per game, at capacity level. In addition to star ownership, the team has partnered with Goldman Sachs to fund a new stadium in the Phoenix area. In 2018, Advantage Sports Union purchased a share in Phoenix Rising, further adding more clout to the Phoenix bid.
Phoenix won't be immediately added, but the heavy backing they’re receiving, in addition to their market, make them a strong candidate in the next round. Not only that, but soccer has ‘proven’ itself in Phoenix; a Mexico-USA game did well in 2014, and that success continues locally.
As mentioned before, the Phoenix sports market is crowded, so attention may be an issue. That’s not mentioning Liga MX, and your usual Euro-league watching fans. As teams like Atlanta, Portland, and Seattle have shown, it really does come down to the marketing and image they want to go for. We may see a blend of white hipster millennials mixing in with the older transplants and Latinos, all forming a strong culture and bond, and that’s likely what will work in the Phoenix market. Phoenix is also a university town, which presents a huge marketing opportunity for MLS.
Louisville is another interesting proposition for MLS. Louisville is not a traditional MLS market; it’s in a state with a relatively unknown soccer scene, and where college basketball and horse racing are king. No other pro sports team has ever tested Louisville, but MLS might try.
Louisville is somewhere in between the Midwest and the South; I’m not qualified to classify Kentucky culturally, but that’s irrelevant so long as it can make a buck for MLS.
Regarding demographics, Louisville is interesting; Louisville has been experiencing a massive uptick in population and is one of the United States’ fastest growing cities; like other metropolitan areas in the region, it’s predominantly White and African-American. Presumably, part of the population growth is due to transplants moving to the region.
An MLS team in Louisville will have to work to capture the city’s image; there isn’t a large Hispanic population compared to other cities, and the Louisville sports scene seems rather conservative. However, Louisville is a college town, which means a lot of students and young people from across the country. It’s also worth making the team a part of the culture of the city itself; events such as the Kentucky Derby and the thriving indie culture scene.
More good news for Louisville is that the local team, Louisville City FC, does well in attendance numbers, with a solid following on social media for a non-MLS team. It helps that the team has been successful on the field and markets itself well. This would indicate that there is a demand for soccer in the city, and it hasn’t been poisoned by failed attempts.
The city of Louisville itself seems ready to embrace MLS. City officials have been in contact for ‘a while’ with MLS; however, the level of interest from MLS is a mystery. Louisville is not a large TV market; the Buchtertown stadium will only go up to 11,000, but according to city officials, it can be expanded to 20,000 if MLS rewards an expansion team. On paper, a Louisville bid looks decent, but until the next phase of expansion candidates, a lot remains to be seen.
3. Las Vegas
Why do I place Las Vegas third? Because Mark Davis and Jon Gruden. I’m not even saying that sarcastically, I’m being serious (obligatory screw you Mark Davis).
Las Vegas first appeared on the radar in 2014, and the initial bid was at Symphony Park. Otherwise, a Las Vegas MLS bid has been silent for a while; the last word from it was that, according to Garber in September 2018, there was ‘some talk about it’, which could mean anything. However, there’s good reason to believe it will come back.
The Raiders’ new stadium in Las Vegas will likely be accommodated to host soccer games. Look at the bigger picture; Mark Davis is heavily connected to Jerry Jones, who recently signed a deal with the FMF to host one Mexico friendly a year in AT&T Stadium (something I absolutely hate; obligatory screw you Jerry Jones). Mark Davis is going to try to make as much money from his stadium as possible, and Jon Gruden may have an ownership stake in the Raiders and will have some sway on those matters as well. With Haslam entering the ring, I wouldn’t be surprised if Davis and Gruden have privately discussed the idea of an MLS franchise, and hosting soccer in the stadium, given the trajectory of the league.
One major issue in this case is preparation; Arthur Blank carefully prepared Atlanta United for a long time; I have no idea what kind of preparations would take place with Davis, Gruden & Co (or have taken). Heck, David Beckham was initially considering putting his MLS bid with Davis but decided to go with the Miami group instead. That could be a bad omen, perhaps indicating the toxicity of Mark Davis. It should also be noted that Mark Davis isn’t a particularly popular (or rich) NFL owner, which makes me wonder how MLS would approach a bid from him. The good news is that the Las Vegas Lights team had a good season attendance wise in 2018 and has already built an image of oddities such as DJs and llamas and would likely continue those aspects if they were inducted into MLS.
Stadium size will also be an issue in using the Raiders stadium for an MLS team; will Las Vegas pack house like Atlanta or Seattle? MLS already hates the idea of using NFL stadiums that won’t fill, unless Davis & Co. can convince Garber that games will be consistently filled. How involved would ownership be anyway? Will we see Jon Gruden jumping around while watching his MLS team play? Frankly, that’s anyone’s guess.
It helps that the Las Vegas Lights had a successful debut season, showing that Las Vegas has a market for soccer. In addition, the Golden Knights had a successful debut season in 2017, further solidifying the potential in its sports market (though NHL arenas are small). I place Las Vegas here because it’s a complete unknown in terms of ownership, stadium, and whether the team will start from scratch, or partner with the existing Lights team. However, as I said before, a lot can change in a few months or a year. Therefore, Las Vegas is the absolute wild card.
Indianapolis attempted to move their NASL franchise to MLS in 2017, but it ultimately died down due to the bad relationship between NASL and MLS, and simply because Indianapolis didn't have enough to be considered at the time.
The bid has been mostly silent since, other than Indy Eleven being focused on getting into MLS eventually. It helps that attendance for the team is quite solid, averaging more than 10,000 people per game at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Demographically speaking, Indianapolis is… interesting. Indianapolis has consistently grown in terms of population, only reporting a population decline in the 1980 U.S. Census. Indianapolis isn’t a very diverse city, being predominantly White/African-American. Median age is solid at 33.7 years old, with a sizable LGBT community and the city is growing, attracting multiple companies to set up shop there. Indianapolis is ranked 25th in terms of TV market size, par with Sacramento or St. Louis. Overall, while the state of Indiana itself tends to be an ‘old white male’ state which is heavily conservative, Indianapolis bucks those trends and is a solid market for soccer. Competition includes the Pacers (basketball is followed religiously in Indiana) and the Colts, alongside college sports.
In terms of stadium, Indianapolis has proposed a soccer-specific stadium in Downtown Indianapolis; the renderings look gorgeous, and funding details are vague, though it appears to mainly focus on private funding with a public partnership. Again, if Indianapolis is going to make a serious push for a spot in MLS, they’re going to need concrete details and strong ownership. Lucas Oil Stadium is probably not an option.
Indianapolis isn’t the sexiest pick, but it has upside. It also benefits that it’s not in the Southeast, where expansion may be at a halt; the question is how strong the push there will be. We can only wait.
5. Tampa Bay
Here’s a more traditional market that MLS has considered coming back to, and previously failed in: Tampa.
Tampa has long been a stronghold for American soccer; the Tampa Bay Rowdies are a popular local brand and were one of the more successful teams of the old NASL. MLS originally had a team in Tampa, and completely screwed it up by calling them the Tampa Bay… Mutiny? They’re wearing teal blue and black, and have a weird Batman alien as their logo? Oh lord, this can only end so well…
Predictably, the team busted because the fans hated the branding and wanted the actual Rowdies (thanks Nike). 10 years after the Mutiny went bust, Tampa got their Rowdies back. You can’t fault the Tampa market for the team failing, and ultimately, MLS has never really looked back.
What Tampa has going is popularity of the local team; the Rowdies brand is well-known in Tampa, and the Rowdies averaged almost 6,000 people in 2018; not eye-dropping numbers, but solid mind you.
What about ownership? Well, the Rowdies were recently purchased by the Tampa Bay Rays, a team not exactly known for their spending habits. Nonetheless, it helps, but the Tampa MLS bid will likely need more financial backing. A lot changes in the span of a few months, and the Rays’ purchase of the Rowdies only occurred in October; it’s possible the Tampa MLS bid finds another investor.
Demographically speaking, Tampa is solid; it’s a growing city with a relatively diverse population and a median age of less than 35 years old. One aspect MLS should consider is location; while the Rowdies do well, they are far from an ideal location in St. Petersburg. The Rays have struggled with attendance in St. Petersburg since they first began playing, and the Tampa bid seems intent on re-furbishing their current stadium. From an MLS perspective, putting a stadium in St. Petersburg could backfire, akin to other suburban stadiums, and the Tampa bid may want to consider a stadium plan in the center of the city instead, closer to Tampa's attractions, restaurants and night life.
The Glazer family are an interesting party in this; they own both the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Manchester United. With MLS already pulling Jimmy Haslam in and having Arthur Blank (who is a great representative for MLS), the interest in the league from NFL owners will likely continue. The Glazer family may see a Tampa MLS franchise as a good investment, and their name would bring a lot of clout to this bid.
Finally, it should be noted that Orlando City exists, and Miami will be entering the scene soon. Only the NFL has 3 teams in the Florida marketplace, though MLS might go the same route.
6. The Carolinas
Charlotte has had an interesting journey. The heart of the Research Triangle itself, it is a growing city which has gotten attention over time as an MLS candidate. We’ll also cover Raleigh as well and refer to this section as ‘The Carolinas’.
First, Charlotte. Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith first proposed a stadium and team in 2017; the bid died down when the Charlotte city council could not get their shit together by October. However, the Charlotte bid has received backing from David Tepper who… want to use the Bank of America Stadium to host soccer games. Not the strongest bid, though Garber was reportedly ‘intrigued’. Despite that, MLS will likely pass on Charlotte if this is going to be their strongest proposal, barring other circumstances, especially since Garber doesn’t envision more expansion in the Southeast (putting a dent to Charlotte, Raleigh, and Tampa). That doesn’t kill the bid; it just means it’s not strong enough. However, David Tepper does appear he would be engaged; he's doing quite a lot of work to develop the Panthers brand and I could see him being similar to Arthur Blank in terms of promoting his team. If Tepper approaches Garber with the same ambition as Blank did, Charlotte might be considered, especially in an opening market like the South.
Raleigh has a somewhat stronger bid, offering a soccer-specific stadium as well as an already committed owner in Steve Malik, who owns both North Carolina FC and the North Carolina Courage. However, I’m unsure about other potential owners; from what it seems, the bid is probably lacking financial clout.
For what it’s worth, it helps that both Charlotte and Raleigh have existing and successful local soccer teams, and soccer in the region itself is popular, so support for an MLS franchise would be immediate. Demographically, both cities are similar; urbanized Southern metro areas with a somewhat diverse and young population who would be a good market for MLS. However, MLS may halt Southeast expansion, though I could see one more Southeast team being added before 2030.
Plus, think about it. Wouldn't Southern MLS derbies be awesome? Mix the college football atmospheres with elements from the Premier League, Argentina, and Mexico and it would be amazing.
7. San Antonio
I might as well add San Antonio to moribund, but I'll leave it last because it still might happen one way or another.
Prior to October 2017, San Antonio was one of the leading candidates for an MLS team. San Antonio had it all - a young and diverse but heavily Hispanic population, long term interest dating back to 2005, and a concrete stadium plan (a soccer stadium that could be expanded to accommodate MLS games) and backing from the San Antonio Spurs. Things looked great.
Then Precourt happened. There was ugly threatened legal action from San Antonio to MLS which has since been dropped but may come back. It all went to shit.
However, San Antonio is still, barely alive, with one of two scenarios.
One, Precourt's ambitions in Austin can always go down the shitter. Unlikely, but it could happen. He could go down to San Antonio and continue the bid there.
More likely though, MLS could double down on Texas, and put a fourth franchise down there. Texas is a large state with a high population, and could conceivably support four teams, and San Antonio is large enough to do so.
Even with those scenarios, MLS has pissed away all its good will with San Antonio. We have a reverse Milwaukee situation here. MLS probably realizes San Antonio is a lost cause, which is sad given the way it's played out.
A section for MLS bids which are either moribund (as in, no longer active and likely won’t be), completely dead, or have never existed; this doesn’t mean that a city on this list won’t necessarily get a team (circumstances change), but it’s at best highly unlikely. More than likely, another league (like USL) will expand in these markets instead.
The Albuquerque Sol are New Mexico’s professional soccer team, otherwise the demand for soccer is relatively little in the city, Hispanic population notwithstanding. Albuquerque is a middling TV market, but otherwise no other sports league has considered Albuquerque, with little history in supporting pro teams, and their claim to sporting fame is moving the Springfield Isotopes to their city; on the plus, Albuquerque has exploded in population lately, but its sandwiched between Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Texas, all of which will get priority before Albuquerque.
The last update from a potential Albuquerque bid was from March 2017, where Albuquerque mayor Richard Berry met with Don Garber. Perhaps Richard Berry didn’t get the memo that MLS isn’t looking into smaller-sized cities as it did in the past. It’s a city MLS might have considered in the 2000s, but that time is long gone.
Baltimore is likely redundant, given that Baltimore only has two pro sports teams in the Orioles and the Ravens, and their most notable claim to soccer fame was a liquor store team making a U.S. Open Cup run. DC United controls territorial rights to Baltimore and they won’t give it up. In addition, DC United is on the upswing with their new stadium and is on an upward trajectory; a better idea would be to market DC United in the Baltimore area, and the rest of Maryland.
Ottawa attempted to enter MLS in 2009 but was ultimately passed over in favor of Portland and Vancouver instead. Other Canadian cities are likely to be served either by USL or the upcoming Canadian Premier League, and MLS seems content on three Canadian teams, not to mention the value of the Canadian dollar versus the American dollar, and that major Canadian metro areas are much smaller than American ones.
Chicago could be large enough to support two MLS teams, but MLS likely won’t consider another it, though the USL has considered putting a team in Chicago. Unfortunately, the Fire haven’t done a good job of marketing themselves in Chicago; the Schweinsteiger signing gave a lot of buzz but the deal in Bridgeview has stymied the team’s progress, as the Fire play far from the fans and the stadium doesn’t bring much revenue. Shame, it would be nice to see Chicago have a hugely popular MLS team. MLS seems to not do great in very large American markets (New York, Boston, and Chicago), it’s something that needs to be considered moving ahead especially looking at TV numbers.
Ah, Cleveland. Imagine an MLS team in Cleveland and the horrible records they would be posting because… Cleveland sports, yo.
The idea of bringing MLS to Cleveland started in 2004 when businessman Bert Wolstein attempted to get public funding for a Cleveland team; he ran into delays with the project, and unfortunately, Wolstein passed away in 2004, leaving the bid in limbo (at this time, Cleveland was passed over in favor of Real Salt Lake and, you guessed it, Chivas USA). His successor sports group attempted again in 2006, this time settling on Macedonia (not the country), a suburb outside of Cleveland, but the bid was skullfucked by public resistance over financing and environmental issues, and the area overall was hit hard by the 2008 recession. This effectively killed any potential Cleveland MLS team.
Don Garber stated in 2014 that talks for a Cleveland MLS team were inactive. With the purchase of Columbus Crew by Jimmy Haslam, it can be assumed that Cleveland’s territorial rights will belong to Columbus Crew, essentially putting the Cleveland-Akron market as Crew territory. Instead of an expansion franchise, MLS will likely focus on promoting the Crew as Cleveland’s team, and marketing Hell is Real in the Cleveland-Akron area.
6. Des Moines
It’s too small. The most I could find for this hypothetical bid was Scott Siepker (a local celebrity apparently) who thinks MLS2DesMoines might be a good idea. That ship has long sailed away, Scott. Not to mention Des Moines has a USL team in the Menace, which is pretty much the most Des Moines can aspire in terms of a soccer team.
7. Los Angeles/Southern California
The last thing we need is another team in or near Los Angeles. Los Angeles seems to be the go-to place for every league and sporting event but there’s one problem: Los Angeles is saturated with sports teams, and millions of other things to do. The Angels, Chargers, Clippers, Dodgers, Ducks, Galaxy, Kings, LAFC, Lakers, and Rams all play in the Los Angeles/Orange area, and most of those teams have very well-established histories. I find it ridiculous that Barcelona wants to create the NWSL version of Chivas USA here with the Barcelona branding; they’ll go extinct like the dinosaurs and Los Angeles will reject them harder than a D list actress.
Limit the California expansion to Sacramento and San Diego and get the LA Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes to get their shit together; it’s a market MLS needs but is making some serious errors in.
Here’s a crackpot idea: an MLS-Liga MX merger. Liga MX president Enrique Bonilla brought up the idea last October, alluding to it and stating that it could happen post 2026 World Cup. But, is it possible?
First, this would be a mega-league. Whoa. This could be a more than 50 team league by the time 2026 rolls around; this hypothetical super-league would have over-saturation issues and too many games over demand. What would they do, limit the number of teams? That will not sit well in any North American country, especially given how bought in owners are in their respective leagues. That’s not accounting for fan resistance. Smaller fish in this hypothetical league could get sent to a ‘second division’, creating a mass controversy for ages, even if this model had promotion/relegation; a solution would be splitting into ‘leagues’ or ‘conferences’ like MLB and the NFL, and having a similar playoff/championship format, but then the question of interleague play would come in, not to mention how Libertadores and CCL would factor in (don’t get me started with the Caribbean/Central American associations). From a scheduling and formatting perspective, this looks like a huge clusterfuck unless it’s very carefully designed.
This isn’t accounting for other obvious issues such as traveling across borders, the constantly fluctuating values of the Mexican peso and Canadian dollar compared to the American dollar, politics, the traveling itself (a team traveling all the way from Montreal to face a team in Veracruz, and then traveling elsewhere or back, could be grueling, and that’s just one example), broadcasting rights/TV contracts, stadium accommodations needed for this Pan-North American league, security issues across the board, promotion/relegation (oh god) and where Caribbean and Central American leagues would stand on this issue. I would assume this will all be carefully planned over the span of a decade, and by the time 2026 comes an integrated North American Super League may make more sense. But for now, this just seems like a crazy idea, more so than the proposed European Super League that’s gaining traction.
Milwaukee is a relatively large city, with a good sports history. There’s some soccer history here too; the Milwaukee Wave have been relatively successful, so what gives? It’s not the lack of interest that has kept MLS out of Milwaukee; rather, it’s because of the muddied waters, or more specifically, a ploy by the old guard to keep the league out of the city.
In 2002, Tulsa World reported that an MLS team in Milwaukee was either scrapped or on hold (Tulsa itself at this point was in the running), and as it turns out, they were scrapped (the article itself is worth a read and paints a picture of the league in 2002 after the World Cup; even Atlanta, Houston, Minneapolis, New York, and Philadelphia are mentioned, not to mention current candidates in the Carolinas, San Diego, and St. Louis). Here’s where things get spicy: Tim Krause (who sadly passed away in 2011) was adamant for an MLS team in the center of Milwaukee in 2002, but his proposal was killed by the authority operating Bradley Center and Miller Park.
The bid dates to 2001; according to Sports Business Daily, the plan would have included a privately-funded stadium in Downtown Milwaukee; the stadium would have fit 20,000 and could be renovated in the future to hold 26,000 people. The investors were described as having ‘understood the soccer world’ and came from as far as Norway. The stadium would have withstood the cold climate of Milwaukee and would have been close to businesses and attractions in the city. This was an incredibly ambitious bid, especially during a time when MLS was considering ceasing operations. Milwaukee could have been Seattle before Seattle, and the trajectory of the league might have been expedited.
This is where the conspiracy starts; apparently both the Brewers and Bucks conspired to torpedo this bid, and Bud Selig (both owner of the Brewers and commissioner of MLB) did anything he could to prevent a soccer team in Milwaukee, and he was successful. The Bradley Center Board of Directors unanimously killed the proposal, and Krause was furious. For more context, the Brewers hadn’t made the playoffs since 1982, and the Bucks were only re-gaining popularity at that time after struggling in the 1990s.
Yes, even back then, the old guard of sports feared soccer, during a time when MLS and American soccer were punchlines. It makes sense too: why let a new kid on the block when they pose a threat to your languishing business? Ultimately, it was not to be, and perhaps Garber hasn’t looked back because of beef with the Bucks and Brewers. What’s more depressing is that Krause died in 2011; he saw potential for American domestic soccer (and he was right), but it’s depressing to think he got blackballed by the Brewers and Bucks and won’t be remembered like Arthur Blank or Paul Allen. Rest easy, Tim, your vision was fulfilled, but sadly not in Milwaukee.
The last update that I could find from this particular bid was in 2014; a supporter’s group, the Milwaukee Barons, alongside a larger group called the Milwaukee Soccer Development Group, were trying to build local awareness for an MLS team (even at this point, at best it would have been a decade to get a team); unfortunately it seems momentum has died down (probably because there was a lack of local corporate support, and Garber looking at Milwaukee with a cynical eye).
While Milwaukee proper is a relatively large area, the metro area isn’t particularly large. The TV market here would likely include the entire state of Wisconsin, which means areas like Madison, Green Bay, etc. being included, so it’s not a huge market, but not terrible either. However, regardless of demographics and numbers, Milwaukee has burned its bridge with MLS, meaning we likely won’t see an MLS team in Milwaukee, and you can thank Bud Selig for that. For all the hate the NFL gets from soccer fans, they’ve done quite a lot to help MLS grow, whereas MLB and the NBA attempted to hinder it in the past.
10. New Orleans
New Orleans was one of the first cities in the world where pro soccer was played, especially by ethnic communities. However, New Orleans has never really been considered for an MLS bid, and the highest-level soccer team being the New Orleans Jesters. As far as I could find, there has never been any public interest from New Orleans in relation to an MLS team.
New Orleans is not a particularly large market; the metropolitan area is quite small, and the TV audience share isn’t particularly great. A New Orleans team would also have to gain attention from not just New Orleans but also the entire state of Louisiana and extending into Mississippi.
I suppose New Orleans' sports attention is taken away mostly from football on both the college and professional level, and the surrounding demographics aren’t great for soccer, so it’s understandable why MLS hasn’t considered New Orleans. Think about it: are all those rednecks from the boondocks who probably still think of soccer as being part of some socialist plot (which is incredibly ironic when you compare the structure of the NFL compared to the Premier League or La Liga) are suddenly going to jump on the MLS bandwagon? Sure, some will, but not all. Point being, New Orleans would be a difficult market to work with.
11. New York City
Ah, if only the Cosmos were in MLS, but it's not to be.
Garber commented in 2010-11(?) that New York could conceivably support more than two soccer teams, pointing out cities like London that have multiple teams across levels, but it seems Garber has since changed his mind (especially when other markets are hard to pass up). New York expansion doesn’t make sense anyway; like Los Angeles, the New York/New Jersey area is saturated with sports teams (not counting MLS; Devils, Giants, Islanders, Jets, Knicks, Mets, Nets, Rangers, and Yankees).
12. Oklahoma City
Technically speaking, this one is still alive, but I’m listing this one as moribund, primarily due to the latest developments.
In July 2017, OKC Energy FC owner Bob Funk Jr. stated he was committed to MLS, despite setbacks in finding a stadium. However, the latest update from July 2018 is a max 10,000 capacity crowd; I assume this would be expandable, but the article doesn’t mention anything about MLS, which means that the ambition has died down, at least for now.
Of all the cities on here, I would put Oklahoma City as the likeliest to be revived, but I wouldn’t put much on that. Demographics are solid; predominantly white with a sizable Latino community, and consistent growth in the decades since, with a relatively solid median age. However, the metro size of Oklahoma City, and the TV market size aren’t great. However, the Oklahoma City Thunder have been successful (sorry Seattle), so MLS could work here.
OKC Energy FC had a down season in 2018 and attendance wasn’t great, so while there is a market, attendance may not be consistent. In addition, I haven’t heard of much financial backing for this bid, so I could see MLS seeing Oklahoma City as moribund like with Cleveland and Milwaukee, but again, there is some fluidity here.
Omaha’s most famous sports franchise is… a Legends Football League team?
Jokes aside, Omaha is a fun market to look at; steady population numbers, but overall a small market that is usually covered by Kansas City. Nebraska is a stereotype ‘aging old white’ state that isn’t exactly a market for soccer. In addition, attempts to bring soccer to the city have already come up short, and the sporting scene is relatively conservative. Both USL and NISL are attempting to bring a team here, but the demand here is completely unknown. This is a hard pass.
Pittsburgh has a good market size, especially in terms of the metro area, so market size isn’t the issue here for Pittsburgh. The problem here is interest.
The Pittsburgh Riverhounds are the local pro soccer team, but attendance there in 2018 was an average of 2,401 for a stadium that fits 5,000. In context, it’s worse, as the team was 3rd in the USL eastern conference and made the playoffs.
It’s plain and simple – there’s not a strong soccer culture in Pittsburgh. The area is obsessed with football, and especially the Steelers. Whatever other attention for sport exists is taken by the Penguins, Pirates, and college sports (damn it, I would love to see Pittsburgh embrace soccer, imagine a cross between a Steelers game and a Premier League game).
Even with the changing demographics of the city, selling soccer there is going to be difficult compared to other expansion candidates. The city of Pittsburgh has not engaged MLS publicly either as far as I could find, so this is a pass.
Funny how time passes and brings change. Rochester was considered a serious MLS candidate back in the mid-2000s, and it’s fun to read about the effort in hindsight. In the 2000s, a team in Rochester might have been considered, with the MLS ethos focusing on smaller cities and suburbs.
The area was hit hard by the 2008 recession and the local team, the Rochester Rhinos, have been mismanaged and on hiatus. to mention nearby Buffalo had an NWSL move to North Carolina. In addition, northern New York is a paltry market compared to other expansion candidates. In 2005, MLS really didn’t have many other choices; in 2019, MLS has a greater cream of the crop.
16. San Francisco Bay Area
The failure of the San Francisco Deltas was likely part of a larger move in hopes of tapping into the SF Bay Area market here the Earthquakes haven’t done a great job of marketing themselves. The Deltas were a noble idea but unfortunately fell victim to a league crisis and the saturated Bay Area sports market.
The SF Bay Area could support a second team, but the market here is saturated, and Earthquakes hold territorial rights anyway. MLS needs to get their shit together here; it’s a large market with favorable demographics and the local team isn’t doing so hot, much like Boston or Chicago.
Ah, where the league once was, where MLS was courting Tulsa, Oklahoma, of all cities, for an MLS expansion team.
That died down, as Tulsa, simply put, is too small to support a team in any major league but given the old MLS idea of ‘small cities with no teams will support soccer’, it was attractive at some point. Tulsa nowadays enjoys MLS affiliation via the Roughnecks and are trying to get a stadium built. Otherwise, a nice trip down memory lane.
Whew, and that concludes potential MLS expansion. The situation is much different than it was 10, or even 5 years ago. Markets that weren't considered an option are now opening up, and going up to 28-32 teams is a very real possibility. Of course, expansion isn't the end all be all; for every new Atlanta-like success we still have a franchise like New England or Dallas which is stuck in MLS 1.0 thinking and a crap stadium situation.
The league not only needs to choose its candidates wisely, but grow the league as a whole. More teams means more markets, and a larger audience share. One can lament the visibility of MLS compared to the other four major leagues, but not having teams in major markets such as Detroit, Miami, and San Diego will do that. Additionally, viewers in other key markets like Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, New York, and San Francisco simply aren't engaged enough, and those are all huge markets.
It's an exciting time for the league, and the 2020s will really give an indication of the league's trajectory. Let the 2020s be the decade where MLS is catapulted as a top league in the world.