Twenty is a magic number.
That’s been Major League Soccer’s goal for a round number of teams, a kind of perfect equilibrium. And with this week’s announcement of New York City FC to begin play in 2015, MLS is now in line with some of the biggest leagues in the world as far as number of member clubs.
But what’s been most impressive in the race to Team No. 20 isn’t just the involvement of Manchester City and the New York Yankees. It’s been the collective scream of soccer fans from coast to coast, arguing why their city has major league ambitions and is deserving of consideration for top-flight soccer.
What I’ve culled together below is an MLS Ambition Rankings of sorts (to borrow from our pal Grant Wahl, who does this annual exercise with MLS clubs). To be clear, this Top 10 isn’t a list of next in line for an MLS club once the league decides to expand beyond 20 some day. This is a look at which markets have been most impressive in making their voices heard by publicly clamoring for top-flight soccer.
Have you made your voice heard?
Metro population: 2.2 million
Thanks to a stunning degree of recent mobilization, O-Town cannot be ignored and has perhaps the greatest MLS ambitions of any American city, thanks to Orlando City SC. They’re a third-division club that thinks like a top-flight organization, with a mobilized fan base, local support of politicians and business leaders, a fully functional academy and average attendance that tops 8,000. That’s not enough to get it done yet – recent legislative setback aside – but considering OCSC are only in their third year of existence (after relocating from Austin, Texas), the fifth-biggest metropolitan market in the Southeastern United States sure is making its case for being the next No. 1 choice.
2. MINNEAPOLIS-ST. PAUL
Metro population: 3.3 million
A great market with one of the more passionate fan bases across all sports and, a little like NYCFC, with big-name local involvement. The NFL’s Minnesota Vikings have negotiating rights with MLS and very much would like to enter the fray at some point. Meanwhile, the NASL’s Minnesota United FC enjoy a solid following and show there’s grassroots interest in the Twin Cities. It helps that MLS has its National Sales Center just next door to United's stadium. But it’s a busy sports landscape in the Twin Cities.
3. SAN ANTONIO
Metro population: 2.2 million
The NASL’s Scorpions have, by themselves, thrust the Alamo City into the conversation courtesy of the ridiculous attendance numbers they continue to enjoy in just their second season, often topping five figures. Their brand new soccer-specific home has a capacity of 8,000 but is expandable to 14,000 – or more should the need arise. The issue is the profile – despite San Antone being the seventh-biggest city in the country, it’s the 37th-biggest TV market. That’s a tough sell.
4. MIAMI-FT. LAUDERDALE
Metro population: 5.6 million
There are some passionate fans here who have been waiting patiently for the return of MLS since the Miami Fusion folded in 2002. The NASL’s Ft. Lauderdale Strikers have talked plans for an eventual replacement for aging Lockhart Stadium, and those rumors of David Beckham getting involved in an MLS club are just so luscious. But the failure of the Fusion is strike one. FC Barcelona pulling out of their idea of a branded club on South Beach is strike two. That Miamians only back a glitzy frontrunner like the star-studded Heat is even more pressure. No one’s going to Marlins, Dolphins or Panthers games, and that’s not encouraging for a potential sports startup.
Metro population: 5.5 million
It’s the largest media market in the US without MLS, and there’s corporate money and big interest – the NFL’s Falcons keep dipping their toe into the water and have spoken repeatedly with MLS HQ. But the Georgia Dome isn’t going to cut it, and although the NASL’s Silverbacks enjoy good support (and a certain Eric Wynalda, at right, as technical director), it’s not quite at the level expected of a major market in MLS yet. And much like Miami, Hotlanta seems to suffer from often apathetic fans. More to prove here.
6. ST. LOUIS
Metro population: 2.8 million
When looking at the wide swath of Midwestern land without MLS, this one always stands out. They often call it “the birthplace of American soccer,” and the roll call of recognizable pros from the Gateway City is long. The youth-participation rates are off the charts, too. But no viable ownership group has stepped forward. That’s too bad, because this seems to be Taylor Twellman’s personal crusade – and the huge turnout for Thursday night’s Chelsea-Manchester City friendly at Busch Stadium will speak volumes.
Metro population: 2 million
No, it’s not a huge place, it’s not big name and it’s spread out over three-plus counties. But “The Triangle” has a wildly passionate fan base, thanks to three ACC schools within a half-hour from each other. Soccer does well here, both at the men’s and women’s levels, and the NASL’s Carolina RailHawks (at right, in orange) are a decent draw and have made a little noise about aiming higher. Could all those disparate parts be brought together? If they were, one MLS player from the area tells me he’d “play there for free.” If it were done right and to scale, this could be an East Coast "Portland" in the making. Eventually.
Metro population: 1.9 million
They’ve got a USL PRO expansion franchise on the way in 2014 and a local government very interested in the sport both on a community development and commercial level – and that includes thinking bigger. Sactown actually made a pitch to lure the Earthquakes into the Central Valley when the franchise was reborn in 2008. And the community’s successful efforts to keep the NBA’s Kings from moving to Seattle were downright inspiring. There’s something brewing here.
Metro population: 1.8 million
File this one under “where the hell did that come from?” From seemingly out of nowhere, former Chicago Fire president Peter Wilt got together with some ambitious soccer-loving Hoosiers and mobilized in record time to get an NASL expansion franchise, Indy Eleven, to begin play in 2014. In five months since the official announcement (which coincided with the MLS SuperDraft in Indy in January), the club has more than 3,000 season-ticket deposits – and has yet to hire a single member of its technical staff.
10. SAN DIEGO
Metro population: 3.1 million
MLS looked south often during the early days of the league, when it was based in Los Angeles. But SD is a tricky market – it’s the eighth-biggest city in the country but with a metro area spread out over more than 4,500 square miles of laid-back earth. That’s roughly twice the size of Delaware. And although TV soccer viewership numbers often break records, that hardly ever translates to butts in seats. Plus, much like St. Louis, no ownership group is stepping forward.
Honorable mentions (in alphabetical order): Detroit, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Ottawa, Tampa
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. "The Throw-In" appears every Thursday.