Indy not among finalists for next two Major League Soccer franchises

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Major League Soccer on Wednesday announced the four finalists for the two expansion clubs it is scheduled to announce by the end of the year. And, as expected, Indianapolis is not among the four.

Cincinnati, Detroit, Sacramento and Nashville were chosen to make formal presentations to MLS Commissioner Don Garber and the league’s Expansion Committee in New York City on Dec. 6, MLS said.

The two winners are expected to be named Dec. 14 at the MLS owners meeting, also in New York.

Eight other cities that turned in bids early this year were not chosen: Indianapolis; St. Louis; Phoenix; San Antonio; San Diego; Tampa/St. Petersburg, Florida; Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina; and Charlotte, North Carolina.

Indianapolis’ bid was put together by Indy Eleven owner and real estate developer Ersal Ozdemir and an investment group that includes local auto dealer Andy Mohr; Elwood Staffing President Mark Elwood; Heritage Environmental Services President Jeff Laborsky; and Mickey Maurer, a shareholder in The National Bank of Indianapolis and in IBJ Corp.

MLS, which is the top professional soccer league in the United States, is planning to add four expansion teams—two this year and two more at a “later date.”

The franchises picked next month are likely to join the league in 2020. The other two are likely to join by 2022, sources said.

Franchises joining the league are reportedly expected to pay an expansion fee of $150 million each, up from $10 million a decade ago.

The league said Wednesday that the 10 markets that aren’t chosen to receive expansion teams this year will still be under consideration for the two other spots that are picked in the future.

In December 2015, MLS announced plans to expand the league to 28 teams. The Los Angeles Football Club, which begins play in 2018, will be the league’s 23rd team. A David Beckham-led group is in discussions with MLS officials to receive the 24th team, in Miami.

Hampering Indy’s MLS pursuit is the lack of a solid stadium plan—a condition needed for bidders to receive franchises. The team has identified land southwest of Lucas Oil Stadium for a new 20,000-seat stadium but hasn’t been able to get state lawmakers to approve a funding measure.

Indy Eleven President Jeff Belskus told IBJ Wednesday that the MLS announcement “is not completely surprising.”

“A lot of [MLS officials’] approach has to do with the stadium development, and we have work to do in that regard,” Belskus told IBJ. “This [announcement] motivates us to work harder for the next round of expansion. I still believe Indianapolis is a great soccer market and would be a great addition to MLS.”

The Indy Eleven have played in the North American Soccer League since the team’s inception in 2014. The Eleven topped the eight-team NASL in attendance this season, but the league has been struggling.

Three NASL teams that competed this year, including the league champion San Francisco Deltas, are either folding or departing. That’ll give the league just seven teams next year after it adds two franchises in California as expected.

In early September, the U.S. Soccer Federation took away the NASL’s sanctioning as a Division 2 league for the 2018 season. The decision relegated the struggling league to third-tier status behind the United Soccer League, which shared Division 2 status with the NASL during the 2017 season.

The NASL’s uncertainty has added urgency to the Indy Eleven’s desire to move to a more stable league. Some have speculated that the team might jump to the USL, which is showing more growth potential, but that possibility is uncertain.

Despite troubles in the NASL, Belskus said that’s where he expects the team to play next season. He said Eleven officials do have a contingency plan in the event the NASL folds, but he declined to be specific about the plan. He added that team officials have not spoken to leaders of the rival USL “recently.”

“We’re a part of the NASL and we expect to be a part of the NASL to the extent that there is an NASL,” Belskus said.

One thing is certain, he said. “We intend to play in 2018.”

The four bidders picked as MLS finalists are backed by leaders with deep pockets and professional sports experience outside of soccer. The cities also have realistic stadium plans in place.

“The leaders of the Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville and Sacramento MLS expansion ownership groups have bold visions and innovative plans for their clubs, stadiums and their involvement in their respective communities,” MLS Commissioner Garber said in written comments. “We are pleased these highly-respected business and sports leaders have been so determined to bring Major League Soccer to their cities. We have been greatly encouraged by the progress that all four of these groups have made and we are looking forward to their presentations.”

Cincinnati’s group is led by Carl H. Lindner III, co-CEO of American Financial Group and Scott Farmer, CEO of Cintas Corp. FC Cincinnati led the USL in attendance, drawing 21,199 per home game.

The Cincinnati City Council on Monday approved a plan for the city to invest up to $36 million in infrastructure around a privately funded stadium. A day earlier, the community council in the Oakley neighborhood where the stadium would be built voted against the proposal.

Detroit’s bid is led by Dan Gilbert, owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and founder and chairman of Quicken Loans Inc., plus Tom Gores, owner of the Detroit Pistons.

Detroit's group is seen as having the poorest chance after announcing Nov. 1 it would use Ford Field, home of the NFL's Lions.

Nashville’s group includes John Ingram, chairman of Ingram Industries Inc. and the Wilf Family, owners of the Minnesota Vikings.

The Metro Nashville City Council on Nov. 7 approved $225 million in revenue bonds to construct a 27,500-seat soccer stadium and an additional $50 million in bonds for renovations and improvements around the site at the current fairgrounds.

Sacramento’s group includes Kevin Nagle, minority owner of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, Jed York, CEO of the San Francisco Forty-Niners, and Mark Friedman, president of Fulcrum Property Group and minority owner of the Kings. The group said in July it was starting pre-construction activity for a 19,621-seat downtown stadium.

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