While the Montreal Impact are busily preparing for their inaugural season in MLS, there has been more and more conversation and speculation about which city is most likely to be the 20th team in MLS. League commissioner Don Garber has made no guarantees, but it’s becoming clear that if an ownership group has a viable stadium plan, the 20th team will be in the New York City metro area.
And why wouldn’t a second franchise be in the works for MLS? Every major sporting league in the United States has two or more franchises in New York/New Jersey: (NFL: Jets, Giants; MLB: Yankees, Mets; NHL: Rangers, Devils, Islanders; NBA: Nets, Knicks). Sounds like a slam dunk for MLS right?
Wrong. While there’s obvious benefits to adding a second franchise in the New York metro area (significance of New York in soccer history, media attention, television rights, sustainability, oh and money too!), there are significant drawbacks and hurdles. The biggest hurdle is simply where will you put a stadium in New York City. While the boroughs of Queens or Brooklyn have the most potential for a soccer specific stadium (SSS), if the goal is to get a franchise ready for the 2013 season that’s going to be very difficult. It takes a ton of time to get anything done in New York City, even if you throw around a lot of cash and especially when it comes to real estate. The herculean amount of bureaucracy would be overwhelming and the league would be taking a huge risk to ensure that a team would be ready for expansion on their timetable.
I would also ask New York Red Bulls fans how much they’d like a 20th MLS team in New York. I predict most of their responses would be a resounding no. A second team would dilute support from the Red Bulls; something that the New York fans and ownership surely want to avoid.
You’ve probably noticed I haven’t brought up the New York Cosmos yet. That’s because the Cosmos were probably the front runner up until about a month ago. Unfortunately, much has changed in the past month and we’re seeing a club in complete disarray. A change of ownership, firings of some of the franchise leadership and a lawsuit should be enough to give Garber pause, although he’s remaining politically correct in his comments regarding the Cosmos. And don’t let me forget: there’s still no stadium plan regardless of who’s in charge for the Cosmos.
So where should Garber go to get a 20th team for MLS? I think there’s many cities better prepared and much more feasible than New York, particularly in the southeastern part of the country where there is currently no MLS team. While there are decent options out there in Miami, Atlanta, North/South Carolina and even St. Louis, I think the city most ready for an MLS team is Orlando, Florida.
Here are reasons why Orlando is a worthy candidate for team #20:
* OWNERSHIP*: Orlando has solid ownership already in place (Orlando Sports Holdings) with Phil Rawlins as a primary owner and team president. He is on the board of directors for Premier League side Stoke City and has over a decade of professional sports team administration experience. Led by Rawlins and other team executives, the team has already garnered a kit sponsorship from Orlando Health which is impressive as there are even a few MLS teams without kit sponsorships.
* TEAM*: Orlando City recently completed their first season in the USL Pro Division finishing in 1st place in the American Division with a record of 15-3-6. They defeated the Harrisburg City Islanders for the championship. One of the team’s top players, Yordany Alvarez, recently acquired by Real Salt Lake on loan, saw significant action in the MLS playoffs against the Seattle Sounders. In MLS Commissioner Don Garber’s “State of MLS” press conference today, Garber said that a USL presence was an excellent and proven way to build a base of support for an expansion team.
* STADIUM*: While not ideal, Orlando has a similar situation with the Seattle Sounders in that they play in a football stadium: The Citrus Bowl. The Citrus Bowl has capacity for up to 65,000. While not ideal, the stadium could at least be termed “MLS Ready.” This may be the biggest stumbling block for the Orlando City franchise. The economy makes government sponsorship for either renovation or a new stadium very difficult. There is a possibility that a partnership can be struck with neighboring University of Central Florida which could make a soccer specific stadium ideal for both sides. A plan will have to be in place before MLS would accept Orlando City, but the possibilities are there and actually much more feasible than in other cities.
* FAN SUPPORT*: Attendance averaged over 7,500 per match; quite impressive for being a first-year team. With the success of the team, fans took notice and several games went over 10,000 in attendance. A friendly against Premier League side Newcastle drew 10,889 but that was topped in the championship final against Harrisburg City which drew a record of 11,220.
USL Pro League Senior Director Chris Economides commented early in the season that Orlando fans were “the loudest fans I’ve heard in USL PRO.” A rapidly evolving supporters group culture has also taken hold with The Ruckus, Iron Lion Firm, the O-Town Hooligans, and the Rhythm Section all receiving accolades from the club for their continuous and strong support.
Finally, this article posted last week about cities which could support a new or relocated sports franchise sealed the deal for me. While it includes several of the metropolitan areas already being discussed for MLS expansion, the fact that Orlando passes with flying colors makes me think that it might just be ready to be the 20th team in MLS. Surely, with the current ownership, fan support and team already well in place, Orlando City has to be considered a major player and would finally give the southeast a MLS franchise.