Commentary

DeCock: Major League Soccer to Triangle: Not quite yet

ldecock@newsobserver.comApril 12, 2012 

— For the orange-clad soccer fans who crowded into the Backyard Bistro, not to mention the various local business leaders, politicians and other notable folks, Mark Abbott could hold out little hope of MLS arriving in the Triangle anytime soon, only a road map of how to get there. Someday.

The Major League Soccer president said that while the league hopes to add a 20th team soon, a second in the New York market, the timetable for further expansion – to the Triangle and beyond – is far more hazy.

“We haven’t determined what the timetable for expansion will be,” Abbott said. “In the United States and Canada, there’s the capacity to have more than 20 teams, but how we do that has not been determined yet.”

To get in that game, Abbott said, the Triangle would need to demonstrate its viability by generating average crowds for Carolina RailHawks games of at least 10,000. The RailHawks, who averaged about 3,000 fans last season, are a long way from that benchmark.

Four teams have moved up from NASL to MLS in the past three years, as the RailHawks might if MLS came to the Triangle, but even NASL commissioner David Downs pointed out the Montreal Impact was in existence for 18 years before it made the jump to MLS. The RailHawks are in their sixth season, with their home opener at WakeMed Soccer Park on Saturday against Atlanta.

There were never going to be popular answers to the questions hard-core soccer fans came to ask – “Will there ever be European-style promotion and relegation in MLS?” (No, to grumbles) – but there wasn’t much of an answer for the question everyone else came to ask, either.

“Today was really about coming down and getting a deeper understanding of soccer in this community,” Abbott said later at WakeMed Soccer Park. “We wanted to meet with fans, meet with members of the business community and meet with members of the media. … It wasn’t a checklist-type of exercise on the road to making an expansion decision.”

Abbott did lay out a three-point path to MLS for the Triangle, or any would-be MLS city:

1. An ownership group “willing to take on the financial burden of both buying and owning a team.”

2. A stadium that can hold at least 20,000 fans.

3. A market that can generate regular crowds near the MLS average of 18,000, provide corporate support and is a major television market.

Unfortunately for the Triangle, there’s no ready response to any of the three.

Traffic Sports, which owns the RailHawks, is a player-development agency that doesn’t feel like a potential MLS owner, but Traffic vice president Aaron Davidson pointed out Traffic never expected to own three NASL teams, either. He wouldn’t rule out the possibility of being a partner in an MLS franchise: “When it smells like it’s ready, we’ll all know,” he said.

WakeMed Soccer Park is currently being expanded to seat 10,000 fans but would need substantial upgrading to reach MLS standards and, not unlike PNC Arena, is in an area isolated from other development.

Shorthand for the third point, and perhaps all three points, is a fan base willing to support a second-division team like the RailHawks to the tune of 10,000 fans per game.

“If you demonstrate generating the type of robust crowds Montreal did, in the 10,000 range, that’s an indication of the ability to draw 20,000-25,000 fans,” Abbott said.

That’s the first hurdle to clear. Once that’s accomplished, when the Triangle starts talking again, MLS might be willing to listen.

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

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