Not long after MLS announced that they had awarded the expansion teams that would take the league to 24 clubs, they made another announcement: they were going to 28 teams. And ever since then, cities have been lining up to get a team. The fight for teams 25 through 28 is intense and on Tuesday, Tampa Bay and North Carolina joined the race.
The day started with the Carolina Railhawks rebranding as North Carolina FC and announcing that they intend to get an MLS expansion team in the next 12-18 months. The club, currently in the NASL, but potentially moving to the USL, will continue playing and is looking at stadium sites in the Raleigh area.
Later in the day, the Tampa Bay Rowdies said they were launching a similar plan. The club, which is moving from the NASL to the USL this year, wants to expand Al Lang Stadium, a 7,500-seat baseball stadium that the soccer team now uses.
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In the span of one day, the race for an MLS expansion team grew by two cities. And they're two formidable cities. Neither is a gigantic market, but they're both plenty big enough to fit in MLS and have committed ownership. They're also showing that they know how important it is to have a stadium of their own.
Of course, both bids are still a ways off. While MLS confirmed that they have spoken with the owners of both clubs, the league was clear about waiting to see how their bids progress. That is pointed primarily at their stadium plans and financing for it, but it is not limited to that.
Both markets would help MLS's desire to establish a strong footprint in the south. Teams in Orlando and Atlanta have put them in the region, but that's still just two teams for a large swath of people. Miami has been awarded an expansion team already, but they've run into stadium troubles so they're not a guarantee right now. If Miami falls apart, Tampa looks even more appealing, while North Carolina has long-standing support for the sport and has been a prototypical market for MLS that lacked ownership and ambition. That no longer appears to be an issue.
These two cities join a list for teams 25 through 28 that already includes St. Louis, Sacramento, San Antonio, Detroit and Cincinnati, while Indianapolis, San Diego, Austin, Las Vegas and Phoenix have all been bandied about as markets that could potentially launch expansion bids.
The fight for expansion is fierce. And it's only getting more crowded and tougher.