Luke DeCock

New name, stadium plans herald Triangle’s final shot at MLS – DeCock

Carolina RailHawks fans cheer after a first half goal as the RailHawks took on West Ham United at the WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary on July 12.
Carolina RailHawks fans cheer after a first half goal as the RailHawks took on West Ham United at the WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary on July 12. tlong@newsobserver.com

When Stephen Malik bought the soccer team formerly known as the RailHawks 13 months ago, this was always in the back of his mind. He didn’t want to say too much until he had a better feel for the situation, so he hinted at it and spoke obliquely, dancing around words like “MLS” and “stadium” while always leaving his intent clear.

Tuesday, Malik left no doubt. The goal is an MLS franchise, and quickly, in the next 12-18 months.

Is it possible? Perhaps. It will be difficult. Is it the Triangle’s last shot at MLS? Absolutely.

Since buying the RailHawks, Malik has been quietly and privately lobbying MLS, building a foundation. Tuesday, he felt confident enough to take the campaign public.

With a new name (North Carolina FC) and plans for a new stadium (24,000 seats in the $150 million range somewhere in the Triangle, although Malik has always openly leaned toward Raleigh) and the expected addition of a women’s team in the NWSL, Tuesday’s flashy announcements at City Market were designed to attract as much attention as possible.

There’s not a lot of time, and a long way to go, and the more ammunition the Triangle can take to MLS, the better chance it’s going to have to jump a long line of cities already in the expansion queue. Malik said he and his investors are prepared to fund the entire stadium project privately, but the addition of public funding would make it more competitive from an MLS perspective. Even the unfortunately anodyne NCFC branding is an attempt to draw from a regional well, conveniently stepping on the toes of Charlotte’s embryonic MLS hopes in the process.

With its deep soccer roots and summer empty of major-league sports, the Triangle has long been an ideal market for an MLS team, even if that’s something difficult to perceive from outside. (It probably makes the most sense from a sales and marketing perspective for one ownership group to own both the Carolina Hurricanes and an MLS franchise, but the Hurricanes obviously have issues of their own at the moment.)

The Triangle is the kind of discerning market that would show up in crowds in the five figures for RailHawks games against MLS opponents – more impressive than it sounds, given the M.C. Escher traffic patterns to be navigated getting in and out of WakeMed Soccer Park – but never had an overwhelming appetite for second-division soccer.

So for years, the Triangle has fallen behind as MLS moves forward, bereft of ambition and an owner willing to fight the fight. Now the Triangle has both. What it lacks is time.

MLS intends to expand to 28 teams by 2020, but there’s already a long list of cities farther along than Raleigh. Former NASL rival Minnesota got its act together in the space of a few years and will debut in MLS next summer as the 22nd team while a second Los Angeles club will be the 23rd.

Sacramento, St. Louis, Detroit, Cincinnati and San Diego, to name just a few, are jostling for position in the final group, and David Beckham has an open invitation in Miami. The Triangle needs to figure out how to jump ahead of that group, and fast. Malik believes it’s possible. Time will tell.

Still, this statement of intent, this declaration of pursuit, this willingness to invest in an appropriate stadium, all of this is a necessary and obligatory first step toward bringing an MLS team here. If it’s ever going to happen, this had to happen first. If it’s ever going to happen, it has to happen now.

Is it too late for the Triangle? There’s only one way to find out.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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