Commentary

As MLS visits Raleigh, only question is not 'If?' but 'When?'

April 7, 2012 

The only question MLS should be asking with regard to the Triangle is not “if?” or “how?” but merely “when?” The logistics can be worked out later.

MLS president Mark Abbott will be visiting the Triangle on Thursday as a guest of the Carolina RailHawks, meeting with fans and the media to assess potential Major League Soccer expansion into the Southeast. There are legitimate questions to be asked about ownership and facilities, and some serious hurdles to clear, but this market is as good a fit for MLS as MLS is for this market.

The summer MLS season doesn’t coincide with college football, college basketball or the NHL; with 17 home dates, MLS is a better fit for this area’s population than baseball, and there are few markets in the country with more interest in the sport at every level than the Triangle.

For the same reason the Carolina Courage was one of the more successful franchises in the ill-fated WUSA, and for the same reason Traffic Sports saw the potential in the NASL RailHawks and bought them out of bankruptcy a year ago, an MLS team would work here.

OK, so how do you get there from here?

First, you need an MLS-ready stadium. The stadium at Cary’s WakeMed Soccer Park is a great facility for the RailHawks and the ACC championships, and hosted the men’s or women’s NCAA College Cup for eight straight years. But the NCAA hasn’t been back since 2010, telling the town of Cary the event outgrew the site. That sparked a $6.1 million expansion from 7,000 to 10,000 seats, with facility upgrades as well. Still, by MLS standards, it’s suitable only as a temporary home.

An MLS franchise would need a stadium with at least 18,000 seats, not to mention more luxury suites, more press and multipurpose facilities, more parking and better access from Interstate 40. WakeMed Soccer Park has provisions for a 25,000-seat stadium in its master plan, but a stadium in downtown Raleigh might make more sense. Either way, someone’s going to have to put some money into the project.

Speaking of money, someone would have to put up an expansion fee of at least $30 million, not to mention start-up and operating costs.

Traffic Sports, which now owns the RailHawks, is primarily a player agency that owns teams as part of its player-development model. The arcane and complicated rules that govern player acquisition at the MLS level wouldn’t fit that model, but the fact that Traffic was willing to cooperate with MLS on this site visit – Traffic vice president Aaron Davidson is participating, along with NASL commissioner David Downs – indicates an openness to explore any possibility.

Expansion is on the MLS agenda because, quite frankly, adding teams has worked out pretty well for the league. Salt Lake City, Philadelphia and a second Los Angeles franchise all appear to be thriving, but a better comparison for the Triangle is the Pacific Northwest, where Portland, Seattle and Vancouver have all made the jump from the NASL level and benefited from their proximity to each other.

There are 19 MLS teams now, with the league looking at adding at least one and potentially three more. A bunch of bigger markets are jockeying for openings – Detroit, Las Vegas, a second New York franchise – but MLS is taking a long look at the Southeast, thinking there might be the same potential for geographic synergy as in the Pacific Northwest.

MLS held similar fan forums in Atlanta and Florida last year. Now, the Triangle’s time has come – in more ways than one.

DeCock: luke.decock@newsobserver.com, twitter.com/LukeDeCock or 919-829-8947

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