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MLS sets timetable for expansion to 28 teams, $150M fee for teams No. 25, 26

MLS aims to have 26 teams by 2020 and will announce its next two expansion cities in 2017.

Major League Soccer intends to identify its next two expansion teams during the second or third quarter of 2017—likely the third, according to commissioner Don Garber—and those clubs will begin playing by 2020, the league announced Thursday afternoon. MLS then intends to begin crafting a timeline for the selection and entry of teams No. 27 and 28.

While Los Angeles FC prepares to take the field in 2018 and David Beckham’s Miami team, supposedly team No. 24, continues to try and simply find one, the MLS board of governors met Thursday morning in New York City to draft the road map to 28 clubs. The first significant milestone is January 31, when prospective expansion team owners must submit a formal application to the league.

The short time frame between Thursday’s meeting, the application due date and next year’s announcement suggests that Sacramento and St. Louis likely will be teams No. 25 and 26. Those cities appear to be further ahead than the competition, with investor groups finalized and stadium plans in motion.

Garber has expressed his support for Sacramento Republic, which just finished its third season in the USL. He told in September, "I don’t think there’s any market that’s done more than any other, other than Sacramento, which clearly is MLS ready.”

During a Thursday conference call with reporters, Garber stressed that MLS hasn’t been stringing along Sacramento in order to give other cities time to mount competing bids. The board of governors just hadn’t finalized the formal application and evaluation process, he stressed.

“I’ve spent a lot of time with [Republic owner] Kevin [Nagle] and his group and I’ve come away being impressed with what they’ve been able to put together. We probably speak to him more than any other expansion prospect,” Garber said.

Nagle issued a statement on Thursday reading, "The path to MLS just became crystal clear. For over two years, Sacramento has methodically built our case as an MLS-caliber city. We’ve proven the strength of our market. We’ve delivered a truly shovel-ready MLS stadium plan. And we’ve assembled a world-class ownership group. At last, all of that hard work will bear fruit. We look forward to the MLS application process and to demonstrating once and for all that Sacramento is ready for MLS.”

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Last month, St. Louis unveiled an ownership group led by investor Paul Edgerley and including former Anheuser-Busch president Dave Peacock and St. Louis FC owner Jim Kavanaugh, as well as as a stadium site just west of the city’s iconic train station and about one mile from Busch Stadium.

An April vote will determine whether Edgerley and Co. receive up to $80 million in public funding to assist with stadium construction (the Rams were due some $400 million before they bolted for Los Angeles). Should the measure fail, it will be up to the investors whether they want to continue to pursue a team, Garber confirmed.

Edgerley issued this statement on Thursday: "It's a big day for St. Louis. We're in an excellent position to be awarded one of the two new MLS franchises in 2020, given St. Louis's reputation as a great sports town as well as being the traditional home of soccer in the United States. Combine that with the strong investor group we've pulled together, our plan for a new multipurpose downtown stadium, our geographical location and television market, and I like our chances. We appreciate the consideration from Commissioner Garber and the league, and now we go to work to get it done."

A potential 2017-2020 wildcard is Cincinnati, which drew massive crowds during its first season in USL and theoretically could play MLS games at Nippert Stadium in the short term. It would be a shock, however, if it overtook St. Louis or Sacramento. There’s next to no chance teams No. 25 and 26 will be announced before MLS comes to some sort of resolution on Beckham and Miami. It’s believed the league will have a good idea by early 2017 how that situation is going to play out.

“We are very focused on Miami being our 24th team and we’ll continue to work to try to achieve that,” Garber said. “I think I’m more optimistic than I was in the past … [but] not everything you want to do gets done and sometimes you have to step back and if you can’t get it done, you move on. That’s not something that’s driving any energy on this to a conclusion. Much more, it’s just about everybody needs to understand, including David and his partner and the league and everybody else, that we’ve worked hard and it's time for us to reach a conclusion.”

Atlanta, Minnesota acquire assets, deal them for others in MLS expansion draft

The pair of expansion teams confirmed next year will pay an entry fee of $150 million each, MLS announced. It’s understood that Sacramento and St. Louis have been discussing that fee and other parameters for entry for some time. Ten years ago, Toronto FC paid $10 million to join the league.

Garber said the growth is “an indicator of what people believe is the future for Major League Soccer going forward.”

MLS listed Charlotte, Detroit, Nashville, Raleigh/Durham, San Antonio, San Diego and Tampa/St. Petersburg as the other markets that “have publicly expressed interest in securing an MLS expansion team.” All but Detroit, Nashville and San Diego are currently represented by professional teams in the NASL or USL, although Nashville SC is expected to enter the USL in 2018.

The expansion applications due at the end of January must focus on ownership group structure and worth, potential stadium sites and financing and a business plan that includes financial projections (it takes a lot more than the expansion fee to launch a club), information on potential stadium and jersey sponsorship and insight into the local soccer community. All interested cities/investors must submit an application, but MLS didn't indicate when it intends to select teams 27 and 28, saying only that, “The timeline for selecting clubs 27 and 28 will be decided following the filing of applications.”

Tampa Bay Rowdies launch bid to join MLS

In addition to Cincinnati, which would be the smallest market in MLS, several other cities are in good position to contend for the last two spots. NBA owners Dan Gilbert and Tom Gores have proposed the redevelopment of a piece of downtown Detroit property and the construction of a stadium.

Charlotte’s bid is led by investor Marcus Smith, whose family controls the company that owns the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Charlotte Independence owner Jim McPhilliamy also is pursuing a team that would play at a renovated and rebuilt American Legion Memorial Stadium in trendy Elizabeth. Garber said the league has taken note of some strong attendance for international matches staged in Charlotte.

North Carolina FC (Raleigh/Durham) and the Tampa Bay Rowdies recently announced their MLS intentions, while the San Antonio Spurs have been working to bring MLS to the Alamo City. San Diego is represented by an unnamed ownership group and Garber said Thursday that the city’s prospects will improve if the Chargers leave for Los Angeles.

The expansion fee for teams No. 27 and 28 will be set when the timetable for their selection and entry is determined, MLS said. According to Garber, the application process will give the league, "A much better understanding of where everybody is."