FC Cincinnati has its work cut out for it joining MLS

CINCINNATI -- The Major League Soccer expansion process has been set, and FC Cincinnati clearly has some work to do.

MLS commissioner Don Garber held a conference call with media on Thursday to announce the league’s guidelines, timeline and fees for expansion as it prepares to grow from 20 to 28 teams. Four markets have already been determined.

The league moves to 22 teams in 2017 with the addition of Atlanta United and Minnesota United FC, and Los Angeles FC is slated to join in 2018. Garber said in the conference call he is optimistic plans will work out for Miami to become the 24th team, though David Beckham’s ownership group continues to run into problems finalizing stadium plans.

A total of 10 cities will be vying for the remaining four spots, which will be determined by an application process due Jan. 31, 2017. The first two teams will be announced by the third quarter of next year.

"There is tremendous interest in professional soccer across the United States and Canada," Garber said. "Since announcing plans to expand to 28 clubs late last year, many potential ownership groups have contacted us, and numerous public officials have stated their desire to bring an MLS expansion team to their city. We look forward to reviewing expansion applications in the coming months and conducting formal meetings in 2017 with possible team owners."

Initially during the conference call Thursday, Garber didn’t say soccer-specific stadiums were a requirement for the next wave of expansion, but later, when asked more about what MLS is looking for in an expansion team’s facility, Garber said a club-controlled stadium is a must.

FC Cincinnati plays at the University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium and does not currently have set plans to build a new stadium of its own, although the club has remained opened to exploring options.

"Our learning through the (first) 20 years (of the league) taught us there is not a cookie-cutter solution that works in every market, and you've got to really manage what makes sense in each individual city with the owner and with the dynamic that works in the community," Garber said. "The only thing that hasn't changed is that we must have a stadium our team owns and controls, so we can manage our schedule and manage the effective operations of our games. We have begun to see a downtown urban core dynamic that seems to be a real formula for success, so that's kind of where we are."

Garber had publicly questioned whether Nippert Stadium would be a long-term solution when he visited Cincinnati on Nov. 29.

On Thursday, he reiterated what he said during that trip that a committed ownership group and supportive market are the two most important factors for expansion clubs, followed by a "comprehensive stadium plan that ensures the team will have a proper home for their fans and players, while also serving in many ways as a destination for the entire sport in the respective market."

MLS plans to add teams No. 25 and 26 by 2020, at a fee of $150 million, and Garber said those teams would be expected to have a new stadium ready for its first season.

"We would expect that stadium would be open in any expansion team by 2020," Garber said. "There are certainly some clubs that are further along than others. What ultimately is going to happen is we will get a much better idea exactly where everyone is and what their real commitments are (from the applications)."

If FC Cincinnati is serious about its MLS hopes -- and it seems it is -- the club will have to act fast to come up with another plan before the application deadline in six weeks.

Charlotte, Detroit, Nashville, Raleigh/Durham, Sacramento, St. Louis, San Antonio, San Diego and Tampa/St. Petersburg are the other contending cities, although Garber said San Diego is less appealing unless the Chargers leave town.

FC Cincinnati meets the first two requirements on the expansion committee’s guidelines, which the MLS Board of Directors approved Thursday in New York. But the stadium could be a problem: Berding told WCPO.com on Nov. 30 that the club had only looked at a map -- and not recently -- to see if there were any sites available to build a stadium.

Garber did point out Thursday that FC Cincinnati is ahead of some clubs in that it already is planning a youth academy, and he said during his visit on Nov. 29 that the ownership group is "impressive." The financial investment shouldn’t be a problem for Carl Linder’s group, but finding a location in the urban core that MLS prefers could be a challenge.

"The expansion fee is the start of a huge investment in MLS for each group, as every potential market will be building a stadium, that leads to an investment that will go well north of $300 million," Garber said. "Additionally, these new teams will be making significant investments in training facilities, the first team, a youth academy and also building out their administrative staff."

Berding was not available for comment Thursday while out of town but did provide an emailed statement.

"We are honored to be among the 10 cities invited to participate in Major League Soccer’s formal expansion process," Berding said in the statement. “Considering that our franchise launched just over a year ago in August of 2015, we feel the invitation from the MLS and Commissioner Don Garber is a testament to our rising city of Cincinnati.

"Clearly, we have a lot of work ahead in a short period of time, but there was nothing that we heard today that discourages us. Cincinnati and our ownership have what it takes to successfully bid for MLS expansion. We have been working to build our infrastructure since day one because we have been and will always be committed to being the strongest franchise we can be. We have been clear about our commitment to bring professional soccer at the highest level to Cincinnati, and we are enthusiastic about the opportunity to continue that building effort with the MLS."

It should be interesting to see what FC Cincinnati comes up with in the weeks leading up to Jan. 31.

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