On the invitation of NASL second-division side Carolina RailHawks, Major League Soccer officials made their first formal exploratory visit on Thursday to the area of the Carolinas known as the Triangle — North Carolina cities Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.
"It was a great day," RailHawks president Curt Johnson told MLSsoccer.com. "We were able to shine a light on the professional game here in the Triangle and have an open, honest discussion about the future."
That discussion included MLS president Mark Abbott, NASL commissioner David Downs and owner representative Aaron Davidson, business and political leaders, as well as RailHawks season-ticket holders and general soccer fans.
The day-long series of meetings and events, which included a fan Q&A and a media roundtable, was organized by the local NASL club with the intent of sparking a discussion about the future of the sport in the Carolinas and to outline the steps necessary to grow the game.
"What we saw today was a marketplace that has very high aspirations, that feels this is going to be a top marketplace for the sport," Johnson said. "I think Mark Abbott was impressed with what he saw. Those were his words."
Although Abbott took the time to explain the requirements for expansion sides, both MLS and the RailHawks say that any formal talk of expansion is still premature.
"We are not about jumping the gun and putting cart before the horse," Johnson said. "Those things evolve in time.
"What we're trying to do is build the largest possible fan base that we can have here and let other people decide what at the end of the day will be the future. Those people will be the owners, MLS and the NASL and the fans and corporate partners."
MLS has indicated that it is focused on establishing a 20th expansion team in New York. But an expansion timetable beyond 20 teams, and specifically a plan for the Southeast, is yet to be established according to league officials.
Commissioner Don Garber recently visited Orlando, Fla., and met with the owners of USL side Orlando City, who have not been shy about making their MLS ambitions clear.
However, the RailHawks are taking a more measured wait-and-see approach before deciding whether they will make a future jump to the top flight or remain a prospering second-division club.
Traffic Sports are the owners of the RailHawks and the team plays its games at WakeMed Soccer Park, which is undergoing a $6 million expansion to take capacity to 10,000 with the goal of attracting more events.
But what Thursday proved is that the ambition exists.
"There's a lot of interest in that and a lot of discussion about [expansion]," said Johnson, who was a former GM of Kansas City in MLS. "Why would this marketplace not be in the Southeast expansion discussion?
"It's a top-24 media marketplace. It's listed as the top 5 places to live and do businesss. It's a huge growth area. The diversity of the population is tremendous. And sports are obviously very important here. When you look at it from that perspective, it doesn't surprise me at all that people want to talk about expansion and are interested in talking about expansion here."