Luke DeCock

Triangle’s MLS bid moving right along, quietly – 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, 2016. The team, now called North Carolina FC, hopes to join Major League Soccer.
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, 2016. The team, now called North Carolina FC, hopes to join Major League Soccer. tlong@newsobserver.com

Since the initial flurry of excitement surrounding the Triangle’s first steps toward an MLS expansion team, movement forward has been incremental. North Carolina FC announced a comprehensive and essential development partnership with the two big local youth leagues in March, but the stadium plan in particular is now months overdue.

Still, despite the lack of outward progress from NCFC over the past six months, the Triangle continues to move closer to its goal. While NCFC quietly solidifies its bid – integrating the Capital Area Soccer League and Triangle Futbol Club, building a base of support in the business community, evaluating stadium locations – other bids are falling apart as the process moves along.

The Houston Dynamo, which visits WakeMed Soccer Park on Wednesday for a fourth-round U.S. Open Cup match, won’t be the only MLS visitor to the Triangle this summer. NCFC owner Stephen Malik said Tuesday that MLS executives will make a site visit to evaluate the expansion bid soon.

“We’re still in there. We haven’t gone anywhere,” Malik said. “We’re working on all of our stuff and we’re expecting to show off the area as well as we can.”

The biggest part of that bid that remains in question is the stadium plan. WakeMed is a fine facility for NASL play and the Carolina Courage, and would remain the team’s training base, but the Triangle isn’t making the jump to MLS without a bigger, better place to play. The expansion bid included a commitment to a privately funded, $150 million, 22,000-seat stadium without saying where it would go.

That’s not particularly worrisome, because there’s no reason to believe a site announcement isn’t coming at some point. While a downtown location would be ideal, the vacant land between Six Forks and St. Albans Drive next to North Hills also seems like a logical spot, and North Hills developer John Kane was standing in the back of the room when the team announced its expansion bid.

Meanwhile, bids elsewhere, including some that seemed to be far ahead of the Triangle in the expansion race, have seen their stadium plans fall apart.

“We are managing, like we’ve said, multiple scenarios and it is fluid,” Malik said. “Whoever’s gotten a stadium built would agree with that statement. A lot of other folks moved themselves down that ranking, if you will, and so we have been careful to build that base of support that we need before we become public with our preferred option. That’s kind of where we’re at.”

Voters in St. Louis rejected a stadium proposal, bouncing that bid from front of the line to dead in the water. San Diego has a referendum coming, but San Diego State pulled out of the deal and is now unwilling to partner with an MLS team in its search for a football home to replace Jack Murphy Stadium. And Mecklenburg County this week made its financing for a soccer stadium in Charlotte dependent on the city chipping in, which does not appear likely.

There are other bids that haven’t shown any movement at all beyond the paper on which they were written. So wherever the Triangle ranked initially among the 12 bids submitted in January – Charlotte being the most important of the three, since the number of MLS teams in the state is almost certain to be zero or one and not two – it’s now in the upper half by default.

As for the rest? St. Petersburg voters approved a referendum on stadium expansion, which makes the Tampa Bay bid a player. San Antonio appears strong. Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville and Phoenix all have their merits, but it’s hard to make a case for any of them over the Triangle. At worst, they’re equal at this point, with a long way yet to go.

If it’s taken for granted that Sacramento is likely to be one of the two teams admitted in the first wave, that puts the Triangle in a five-team race for three spots – one with Sacramento in 2020, two down the road.

Malik, who just returned from a six-day trip attending the U.S. National Team’s games in Denver and Mexico City as part of U.S. Soccer’s board of directors, a group which also includes MLS commissioner Don Garber, said he was blown away by how the perception of his expansion bid has changed since January.

“If you think about just my past weekend, adult soccer leaders, youth soccer leaders, the who’s who of soccer in the United States, they’ve all played at WakeMed,” Malik said. “You know CASL. You know how strong our roots in the game are. That was a pretty big thing.

“A lot of people talked about trying to do something with a local youth club and we did it with two. There will be 14,000 local youth wearing our jerseys in the fall. When you’re so close to it, you don’t realize how significant something is until you talk to people with an outside view.”

Other markets had a head-start on the Triangle in the expansion process – some by years – but even some of those have fallen behind. Merely by holding position, by continuing to remain solid, NCFC’s bid keeps looking better and better compared to the competition – especially if the team can finalize a stadium site soon.

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

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