MLS expansion plans hit COVID-19 wall



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MLS delays new teams Image: clture.org / oxifresh.com / norcalwater.org

The global COVID-19 pandemic is weakening the financial wherewithal of big entities. A reason why Major League Soccer (MLS) has delayed the arrival of three of the next four expansion teams into the league. The United States is bearing the maximum brunt of the fatal respiratory disease.

Major League Soccer is a men’s professional soccer league sanctioned by the United States Soccer Federation which represents the sport’s highest level in the United States and Canada. The league comprises 26 teams — 23 in the US and three in Canada — and will expand to 30 teams by the 2023 season.

Austin FC remains on track to kick off its inaugural season in 2021 as planned. However, Charlotte will join the MLS camp in 2022 instead of 2021, while St. Louis and Sacramento will begin play in 2023 instead of 2022.

The decision was taken by MLS Commissioner Don Garber, in tandem with the league’s Expansion Committee.

The new timeline directly follows the impact of the coronavirus crisis on team business operations and, more specifically, stadium development. As such, it is designed to give the clubs more room for successful debuts.

A statement quoted Garber as saying, “We have always taken a thoughtful and strategic approach to our expansion planning and have delivered successful launches for every new club.”

“It is important for each club to take the necessary time to launch their inaugural MLS seasons the way their fans and communities deserve. With the extra year to make up for what has been a challenging 2020, these teams will be well-positioned for their debuts and for long-term success,” the statement added.

MLS is currently staging the MLS Is Back Tournament at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, Florida (US), as there is no traditional season presently. The quarantined summer competition has now begun to find its feet following the enforced departures of FC Dallas and Nashville SC due to coronavirus outbreaks in the team delegations.

Garber said that the pandemic is causing huge financial woes and he expects the league to take $1bn revenue hit due to the devastating economic impact of the unprecedented health crisis. MLS’s rapid expansion process has also got delayed due to the precarious financial situation and has hit the coronavirus wall.

MLS Charlotte – which is run by Tepper Sports and Entertainment (TSE), which also owns the National Football League’s (NFL’s) Carolina Panthers, has welcomed the postponement of MLS Charlotte joining the MLS fold due to delays to significant and costly renovations to Bank of America Stadium in North Carolina, US, where both of the organization’s franchises will play.

“After a lot of discussion with Major League Soccer, we are confident it is in the best interest of our club and our supporters to take additional time to ensure a successful inaugural season,” observed TSE President Tom Glick.

“When we were awarded the team in December [of 2019], we knew we were on an extremely tight timeline to begin play in 2021 but we were ready to meet that challenge. Unfortunately, the CVID-19 pandemic has impacted several of our essential initiatives. We have made huge progress in the last few months, but having additional time to build is important.”

Panthers and MLS Charlotte owner David Tepper added, “We are committed to bringing Major League Soccer to our city and region. The party’s still on! We are just delaying it a bit to ensure we have the best experience for our fans when we do start playing.”

Sacramento Republic FC, which currently plays in the United Soccer League Championship, also welcomed the delay as it prepares to construct a 21,000-seater soccer-specific stadium in Sacramento’s (in California) Railyards district.

“Our goal remains the same – to build the best stadium and MLS club befitting the wonderful Sacramento region. With an additional year, we can better adjust for the impact of the pandemic on our community and identify how we can best serve the neighbors and friends that have supported our club on its rise to Major League Soccer,” said Sacramento Republic co-owner Matt Alvarez.

The MLS St. Louis team, meanwhile, is yet to get going on its planned downtown stadium.

Informed MLS St. Louis head honcho Carolyn Kindle Betz, “We’ve been working closely with the league and collectively agreed that the adjusted timeline was the best decision to position our club for a historic launch and long-term success. We can’t wait to get on the pitch in 2023 and are still moving full steam ahead to build a world-class club and stadium district that will invigorate Downtown West and be a meaningful part of our current downtown renaissance.”

The Austin franchise remains on course to join MLS in 2021 as the team is well prepared and have not been severely impacted by the health crisis.

Austin FC President Andy Loughnane remarked, “Austin FC has an incredibly committed ownership group, and the momentum behind Austin FC’s pending arrival in 2021 is real.”

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