Luke DeCock

Triangle late to MLS expansion, but everyone starts from zero – DeCock

Carolina RailHawks owner Steve Malik, left, introduces Mexican star Omar Bravo as a member of the RailHawks at the WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C., Tuesday, July 12, 2016.
Carolina RailHawks owner Steve Malik, left, introduces Mexican star Omar Bravo as a member of the RailHawks at the WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C., Tuesday, July 12, 2016. tlong@newsobserver.com

With North Carolina FC’s bid among the 12 MLS expansion candidates that met Tuesday’s deadline, the good news for Stephen Malik’s dream of bringing MLS to Raleigh is that all the bids are starting from the same point, whether newcomers like Malik and the former Carolina RailHawks or longstanding aspirants like Sacramento.

“I wouldn’t categorize, at this stage, anybody as ahead or behind,” MLS president and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott said on a conference call Wednesday.

MLS plans to add two teams by the end of 2017 to start play in the 2020 season, then two more at an undetermined later date. All of this assumes David Beckham’s already awarded Miami franchise comes to fruition at some point, or there could be a fifth spot open.

Abbott reiterated the four criteria on which the bids will be assessed: Strength of fan and corporate support; television market size; stadium plan; and ownership. North Carolina FC is bullish on the later two, thanks to Malik’s financial reserves and a stadium proposal – more details are expected in the next few weeks – that requires no public support other than infrastructure improvements.

That’s potentially a much greater degree of clarity than some of the other bids – like those of Charlotte and Detroit – which either hinge on government funding that may or not be forthcoming or are still trying to settle on a site.

“We recognized that different markets would be in different places with respect to their ownership groups and their stadium plans,” Abbott said. “We just wanted to know where they were. In order for us to select the city, they’re going to need a finalized stadium plan. What we’re looking for is knowing that the stadium is going to be built. That requires, really, three things: A site under control, the relevant government approvals you need that vary from market to market, and you need to have financing secured.”

Assuming Malik can move forward with his stadium proposal, that should help alleviate some of the Triangle’s unavoidable negatives compared to the other contenders. North Carolina FC will play up the Triangle’s rapid growth and educated, soccer-savvy fan base, but there’s no getting around the raw numbers of larger markets like Tampa/St. Petersburg, St. Louis and Indianapolis.

Still, while the Triangle may be a little late to this party, Abbott made clear Wednesday everyone’s starting from the same spot.

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

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