MLS is adding St. Louis and Sacramento franchises (maybe), demanding bigger stadiums (possibly)

Eleven months after announcing its expansion to 28 teams, Major League Soccer has decided to expand to 30 teams with new franchises in St. Louis and Sacramento … okay, has decided to invite prospective owners in St. Louis and Sacramento to apply for franchises … okay, let’s let the Associated Press try to explain it:

St. Louis and Sacramento, California, have been invited to submit formal bids for franchises as Major League Soccer’s Board of Governors formally unveiled plans Thursday to expand to 30 teams.

Commissioner Don Garber made the announcement at the board’s meeting in Los Angeles, pointing to expansion as one of the key drivers of the league’s growth in North America in recent years.

“We continue to believe that there are many, many cities across the country that could support an MLS team, with a great stadium and a great fanbase and great local ownership that will invest in the sport in their community,” he told reporters following the meeting.

So that’s really just “St. Louis and Sacramento are front-runners for the next two MLS franchises, which we’re planning to award sometime this year.” Which is exactly what Garber said last month. So this is not actually news at all, just confirmation that those two cities will get teams if all their t’s are crossed — which mostly means having stadium deals in place. Both cities have given preliminary approval for new stadiums, with St. Louis promising about $60 million in subsidies and Sacramento about $33 million; these would not be the worst deals in sports history or even MLS history, but still, you know what Everett Dirksen may or may not have said about money adding up

In completely unrelated news but not really, F.C. Arizona, a team that currently plays at a high school field in Mesa in the fourth-tier National Premier Soccer League, has announced plans to build a 10,900-seat stadium at an unspecified location in the Phoenix area, saying they’ll pay for the unspecified costs with their own unspecified private money. That’s an awful lot of seats for a team in what’s essentially a semi-pro league — not all players are paid — so you have to figure this is an attempt to get on the radar of either MLS or the second-and-third-tier USL to get a franchise. U.S. soccer may not have promotion and relegation where teams can move up to higher leagues just by winning games, but it does have a clear path by which owners can buy their way into higher leagues, and it’s clearly leading to a land rush for owners hoping to find an angle by which to enter into the major-sports ownership club without shelling out a billion for a big-four league expansion team.

If you consider MLS a major sports league on par with the big four, that is, which remains an open question. Garber also took time out to say that Minnesota United‘s new stadium is too small, asserting, “I wish the stadium wasn’t 19,000 and that it was 27,000 because I think at some point we are going to be thinking of how do we make the stadium bigger. I think we are going to be dealing with that in a number of different markets.” This is the same week that the New York Red Bulls announced that they’d begin tarping over some seats in the upper deck because they couldn’t sell them; team GM Marc de Grandpre recently remarked, “If we were to build the stadium today…we’d have built the stadium with a flexible capacity system,” meaning a way to reduce capacity from its current 25,000 seats, not increase it. Clearly there are still some bugs to be worked out of the MLS business model — those $150 million expansion fees from St. Louis and Sacramento, or whoever steps in if St. Louis or Sacramento falter, should help buy some time to figure them out.