Indy Eleven still has shot at MLS expansion franchise

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Take a deep breath Indy Eleven and central Indiana soccer fans.

Yes, Sports Illustrated this week is reporting that Indianapolis is NOT a finalist for a Major League Soccer expansion franchise—in 2020. 

Most realistic people already knew that. It was stated in this blog earlier this month.

But let’s take a closer look at what we now know. 

In mid-December, MLS officials will announce the selection of two of four expansion franchises. The first two will begin play in 2020.

The next two will begin play at a later date, many think by 2022. MLS officials haven’t yet pinpointed when they will announce the third and fourth expansion franchises, let alone when they will start play.

SI soccer writer Grant Wahl is the source of the latest report. 

“From talking to several insiders, I’m being told the two expansion teams will likely come from a group of three cities that includes Sacramento, Nashville and Cincinnati,” Wahl wrote. 

And Wahl is probably right. Those three cities look to be well ahead of Indianapolis in their efforts to build a stadium that meets MLS requirements. But all of those teams still face issues. And even if all three cities land teams, that still leaves one spot to be decided.

It’s important to remember there are 12 cities in total going after four MLS expansion franchises: Sacramento, St. Louis, Tampa/St. Petersburg, Nashville, San Antonio, Raleigh, Cincinnati, Charlotte, Indianapolis, Phoenix, San Diego and Detroit.

Even if you take Cincinnati, Nashville and Sacramento out of the equation, Indianapolis stands a good chance at competing with the other bidders.

However, without a solid stadium plan, it remains a long shot for Indy Eleven owner Ersal Ozdemir—who is spearheading the effort to launch a local MLS team—to get a team.

In fact, if Indianapolis did have a stadium plan in place, the city would stack up favorably with almost all of the other bidders.

It’s interesting that Sports Illustrated cites Nashville as one of the three finalists for one of the first two expansion franchises. In some ways, that bodes well for the Indy effort. 

First, Nashville won’t have a professional soccer team playing until the 2018 season when the city’s expansion United Soccer League team begins its first season. And the team is playing its home games in a minor-league baseball park. 

Nashville's Metro Council has approved a $275 million stadium funding plan, but in other criteria, it's not much farther along than Indianapolis. The city has no track record to indicate what even a minor-league soccer team would draw there.

Nashville points to the success of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football Gold Cup match it hosted this summer as proof it is ready to host big-time professional soccer. The match between the USA and Panama drew 47,622—a record for a soccer match in Tennessee.

Indianapolis had similar success in 2013, when it hosted Chelsea and Inter Milan for the International Champions Cup and drew more than 42,000 to Lucas Oil Stadium. You could argue that a match here featuring the U.S. national team would have drawn even more fans.

Indianapolis has four years of data on what a professional soccer team will draw. And that data—good or bad—comes while playing in a terrible home venue and in a faltering league.

While it’s true the Indy Eleven’s attendance has decreased from 10,253 in 2014 to 8,397 this year, the team still led the North America Soccer League in attendance and had better attendance than all but three of 30 USL teams.

Cincinnati (21,199 home attendance average) and Sacramento (11,569)—which were named by SI as finalists for an MLS expansion franchise in 2020—were two of the three. The only other minor league team with better attendance than Indy was Louisville, which edged the Eleven by about 200 per game.

The Indy Eleven’s drawing power in a stadium with no permanent bathrooms, concession stands or gift shops, let along covered concourses, has surely grabbed the attention of MLS officials. 

Cincinnati is also an interesting case. If, as Sports Illustrated reported, Cincy is a finalist to snag one of the first two expansion franchises, apparently having a concrete stadium plan isn't as important as we're being led to believe.

While FC Cincinnati led the USL is attendance, it's stadium plan isn't locked up. FC Cincinnati currently plays in the University of Cincinnati's Nippert Stadium, and while it's nicer and bigger than the Eleven's venue on the IUPUI campus, it's still a reconfigured college stadium.

And what about Sacramento? Its USL team is playing in a soccer-specific stadium, but the quaint Papa Murphy's Park has a capacity of 11,569, which is a real problem considering the MLS requires stadiums with capacity of at least 20,000. Still, Sacramento appears to be the pick of the litter in terms of stadium plans.

It has a site for a stadium reserved near downtown and an owner who says he is willing and able to finance a $226 million soccer-specific venue.

Sacramento FC Republic owners say the stadium will be done by the beginning of the 2020 MLS season if the city get an MLS expansion team. But the only thing the team's owner has done on the site so far is move some dirt around. 

So none of these cities have what anyone would call a lock-tight stadium situation.

Indy Eleven President Jeff Belskus told IBJ earlier this month that he talks with MLS officials regularly and is optimistic based on what he’s hearing about the city’s chances of landing an MLS franchise. Of course, Belskus is paid to be optimistic.

Still, it seems logical that MLS officials are waiting to see what happens to the Eleven’s stadium plans before deciding on the final two expansion franchises.

Time may run out on the Eleven. Team officials say they have an option on land south of Lucas Oil Stadium, but unless they can get state lawmakers to approve financial assistance, the project is probably dead. And several state lawmakers have said they would be hesitant to pass legislation for soccer stadium funding in a non-budget year. 

That means the Eleven would have to wait until the 2019 General Assembly to take another serious shot at stadium funding, and it’s unclear if MLS brass would want to wait that long—just to see what state lawmakers decide. 

The Eleven have already made three unsuccessful attempts with the General Assembly, and while several member of the Capital Improvement Board and other city officials have voiced their support for such a stadium, the plan has no shortage of detractors.

The selection of Cincinnati—should that come to fruition—can be looked at one of two ways. 

First, it’s a Midwestern city much like Indianapolis, and if MLS leaders are willing to take a shot there, perhaps they’d be willing to take a shot here.

On the other hand, the MLS may not want to put two of its four expansion franchises in relatively small Midwestern markets so close together. Columbus, Ohio, already has a team, but there is speculation that it might be moving to Austin, Texas. That move would help Indianapolis.

And while Nashville isn’t exactly in the heart of the Heartland, if MLS honchos chose to put a team there, it’s difficult to imagine the league choosing to put three of its four expansion franchises in such close proximity—and so far away from either coast.

Outside of the frontrunners, the remaining cities have some strengths—and some significant weaknesses. Efforts in places like St. Louis and San Diego—both soccer hotbeds—are on life support.

Indianapolis has to be at or near the head of the class of the remaining teams. And it may be one stadium funding bill away from being at the top of that class.

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