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St. Louis Secures MLS Expansion Team; Are Sacramento, Charlotte Next?

MLS is one step closer to its 30-team goal after welcoming St. Louis to the league. There are presently two viable bids for the final two berths, but as the lengthy expansion process has shown, things can change quite quickly.

A city steeped in soccer history made a bit more Tuesday, as St. Louis was awarded an MLS franchise—the fast-growing league’s 28th—by commissioner Don Garber. The unnamed club is scheduled to kick off in a new downtown stadium in 2022.

Two previous expansion bids had collapsed, the most recent following a public stadium financing referendum in 2017. But from that failure emerged the Taylor family of Enterprise Holdings, led by Carolyn Kindle Betz. Along with several family members and St. Louis FC owner Jim Kavanaugh, Kindle Betz promised a stadium built almost entirely with private financing. A little less than a year later, Garber stood on a stage and draped an MLS scarf around Kindle Betz’s neck.

“It’s hard to imagine that we were able to have a thriving professional soccer league, and that it could exist in the United States and Canada, without having the city of St. Louis being a part of it. Well, imagine no more,” Garber told the crowd Tuesday. With its “incredibly rich soccer history,” he added, St. Louis “not only deserves an MLS team, but has earned one.”

That history begins at the sport’s foundation. Local teams started winning U.S. Open Cup titles in the 1920s. It furnished players to the first U.S. World Cup side in 1930 and to the National Soccer Hall of Fame. And the Saint Louis Billikens dominated college soccer in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. Even though the city continued to churn out pros, however—up to and including Werder Bremen’s Josh Sargent—pro teams had difficulty finding their footing. After the NASL’s St. Louis Stars left town in 1978, the city’s representation was limited to indoor and mostly ephemeral lower-league clubs. That’ll finally change in 2022. MLS has been pondering a team in St. Louis, and talking to politicians and/or potential investors there, for more than a dozen years.

The Taylors’ wealth and long-established presence in the city make them attractive members of the MLS board. So does Kindle Betz herself.

“We are the first female majority-led ownership group in MLS history, and one of the few in all professional sports,” she said. “This is truly an historic day for St. Louis.”

There are more to come, however, starting with construction of a stadium just to the west of the city’s Union Station. The property must be transferred from Missouri state to city control before work can begin.

“We are currently in the progress of locking up the final details of our stadium plan, and we’ll have updates soon,” Kindle Betz said.

Eyes elsewhere will turn toward slots 29 and 30, the last to which MLS is currently committed. There are two openings and, at the moment, two viable bids. Sacramento Republic has been knocking on the door for five years, and they’re now on the threshold. There’s a feeling among many, especially Republic fans, that MLS has been stringing the club along or using it as leverage against other suitors. The truth, however, is that Kevin Nagle never was going to be able to bring Republic up on his own, and he was unable to reach an accord with former Hewlett Packard and eBay CEO Meg Whitman in late 2017.

It was only last January, when Nagle was willing to cede control to California private equity investor Ron Burkle, that Republic became a truly viable MLS candidate. Then in April, the league jacked up the expansion fee to $200 million. That forced Burkle—a meticulous and thorough businessman and negotiator, according to sources—to recalibrate. Conversations with the league continued, and it’s believed that most of, if not all, the hurdles have been cleared. Sacramento’s wait should be ending soon.

Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper wants to bring MLS to Charlotte.

Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper wants to bring MLS to Charlotte.

Charlotte’s bid is the opposite. It’s come together quickly. There’s no existing team, but there is an owner backed by billions. David Tepper bought the Carolina Panthers last year and is eager to add an MLS club to his portfolio. The potential stumbling block is Bank of America Stadium, which wasn’t designed with soccer in mind. MLS is interested in the market—and Tepper, of course—but would have to be comfortable with the club’s game-day solution.

It’s yet to be resolved, and time could become a factor. The Panthers, Tepper, and president Tom Glick, formerly an executive at New York City FC, Manchester City and Derby County, want to reach a deal and kick off soon (ideally in 2021). With no expansion fee set for team No. 30, it’s in the league’s interest to delay its awarding until another legitimate candidate emerges. Representatives from Las Vegas, Indianapolis, Phoenix, Raleigh and San Diego attended the recent board of governors meeting and All-Star Game in Orlando.

Nashville SC and Inter Miami remain scheduled to take the field next year, and Austin FC will join MLS in 2021. The league would rather not operate with an odd number of teams, and almost certainly will want to avoid having 14 clubs in the Eastern Conference and 12 in the Western next year. Nashville CEO Ian Ayre has alluded to the possibility of starting in the West, then shifting East when Austin enters in '21. But that remains a possibility. Either way, adding St. Louis and Sacramento in 2022 would mean playing with an odd number of clubs for at least two years. Welcoming Charlotte in 2021 (or ’22) would solve that problem. That puts some pressure on other interested markets to start putting some pieces together.