When Steve Malik announced that North Carolina F.C., which operated as the Carolina RailHawks for 10 years, would be launching a campaign to earn a spot in Major League Soccer, he set a quick timetable of 12 to 18 months.
Time may be of the essence for the club, which faces rigid competition for what is soon likely to be just four available openings.
The MLS, which currently has 20 teams in the league, has already announced three expansion teams slotted to join over the next two years: Los Angeles F.C., Minnesota United and Atlanta United.
An investment group led by retired soccer star David Beckham is considered a lock to join the league once stadium negotiations on a 9-acre plot of land just west of downtown Miami are finalized.
Cincinnati, Sacramento, St. Petersburg,Fla., and San Antonio are joined by investment groups in San Diego, St. Louis and Detroit as markets trying to land a spot, too.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber has set the league’s ceiling at 28 teams, so there could be at least eight markets, including the Triangle, competing for those four remaining spots.
Costlier than ever
The jump from either the North American Soccer League or United Soccer League isn’t rare, and often those teams are among the most successful.
Five of the top eight teams in MLS in attendance last year – Seattle, Vancouver, Portland, Orlando and Montreal – moved from a lower league to MLS. The RailHawks were once league foes against all but Orlando.
North Carolina F.C. owner Malik, 51, has been in contact with representatives from those clubs to try to learn from their success.
“I was able to speak to folks that have given me an inside perspective on things that have been done that have helped move the needle,” Malik said. “I’m a best practice guy, I try to listen to people who have done well and try to glean some pearls from their experience.”
Malik and his investors will have to pay a much heftier sum than their predecessors.
Los Angeles F.C., which announced its spot in MLS on Oct. 30, 2014, paid a $110 million expansion fee. That may no longer be the going rate.
“Once seen as one of the last affordable investments in pro sports, Major League Soccer is preparing to nearly double expansion fees to about $200 million,” Bloomberg News reported in August.
However, the price tag isn’t of concern to Malik, who mentioned that figure may change.
“I’ve hired an investment banker and we are seeking, and have talked to and had a great response from, additional capital partners that don’t allow another market to be able to trump us from a capital perspective,” he said.
Malik said Tuesday that he plans to build a 24,000-seat stadium as part of the project. He said he projects that the stadium sites and renderings will be made public in the first quarter of 2017.
Malik has said he can pay for the stadium, which is projected to cost $150 million, but emphasizes that in order to make a convincing bid to Garber and others, public money would be needed for parking, improved roads around the area and added surrounding entertainment.
Malik believes that North Carolina F.C. could begin MLS play before a new stadium is built. He cited the top-notch facilities at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, which earned rave reviews from West Ham United manager Slaven Bilić, as being MLS-worthy.
“For most clubs, there’s a transition period of getting the right stadium built, being able to be moved in to … and a handful of markets have had teams start a little sooner,” Malik said. “I think our current facilities allow us to that … and we’ve told the Town of Cary what they need to do to be competitive if that’s going to be our ultimate game day location.”
WakeMed Soccer Park has a capacity of 10,000 and would need to be expanded to be considered as an MLS stadium. The league requires a minimum of 18,000 seats.
“Many leagues want to bring in two teams at the same time and one of the things we can offer is flexibility if MLS wants to bring in a team earlier,” Malik said. “We told (MLS) that we felt like we could offer some flexibility there but there hasn’t been any substantial conversation around that.”
Regardless of where the MLS team, should there be one, plays, Malik said WakeMed Soccer Park would still likely be the club’s home for training and the home to the likely incoming NWSL club.
North Carolina F.C. wouldn’t be the first team to start in MLS before its permanent home was built.
Minnesota United announced its spot in MLS in March 2015 and will play its inaugural season in the University of Minnesota’s TFC Bank Stadium while a soccer-specific stadium is constructed in St. Paul.