This isn’t the first time Mark Abbott has visited Raleigh. Five years ago, the MLS president and deputy commissioner sat down in front of soccer fans at Backyard Bistro and explained that he wasn’t really there to evaluate the Triangle as an MLS candidate, even if that’s exactly how it had been billed.
“(This) wasn’t a checklist-type of exercise on the road to making an expansion decision,” Abbott said in April 2012.
That entire visit was a damp squib, the soon-to-be-bankrupt-and-indicted then-owners of the then-Carolina RailHawks teasing fans with staggeringly unrealistic visions of MLS in an attempt to drum up support for the struggling NASL franchise, all to Abbott’s increasingly visible bemusement.
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What Abbott did make clear at that point was that for the Triangle to be seriously considered for MLS at some indeterminate point long down the road, it needed a more appropriate stadium than WakeMed Soccer Park, more community support and, most of all, an owner capable of spearheading the entire process.
Wednesday is that indeterminate point long down the road. Abbott returns with a specific mission and the Triangle has more to offer than a new name, North Carolina FC. There will be genuine answers for all three of Abbott’s questions. And there’s nothing deceptive about this visit. This time, MLS is really paying attention. This time, it is a checklist-type exercise.
The owner? That’s software entrepreneur Stephen Malik, who bought the RailHawks in 2015 and rebranded the franchise as North Carolina FC as part of the pursuit of an MLS expansion slot. He has the will and the money to get it done.
The stadium? Renderings and a preferred location – presumably somewhere in the downtown core – are expected to be revealed Wednesday, behind schedule. Malik says he can build a stadium without government assistance, unlike other expansion bids (including Charlotte) that are dependent on large amounts of government money.
And the community support? The NCFC partnership with the major youth soccer leagues is an important part, but turnout at Wednesday’s 5 p.m. rally downtown will go a long way toward making an impression on MLS. Historically, attendance for matches against MLS teams has been good, but the bar is set pretty high here. Cincinnati’s USL team drew more than 30,000 fans to each of a pair of wins over MLS teams in the Open Cup last month.
If you believe that the Triangle deserves an MLS team – and there’s every reason to believe that it can work here – showing up at City Market will go a long way toward proving it.
Finally, after years of fits and starts, after the false hope of April 2012, there is a real and legitimate chance this could happen. Twelve cities applied for four expansion slots, two this fall and two down the road. Already, a handful of those bids have fallen behind. The Triangle may be a long shot to get into that first group, but at the least it can position itself to be a favorite in the second group.
So it’s a big week for NCFC, which is also hosting the Premier League’s Swansea City for training this week and a friendly on Saturday. That’s a bucket-list item for Malik, who was born in Wales but grew up in Kinston. So is putting an MLS team in downtown Raleigh. From the moment he bought the team, he left no doubt that was his ultimate goal.
So here we are.
More will go into the eventual MLS expansion process than this site visit, and some factors – like owner finances and stadium plans – are known, objective quantities that can be measured against each other across various markets.
It’s hard to tangibly measure enthusiasm, though. That’s where Wednesday matters. If the vote ends up coming down to fine margins, leaving a good second impression on Abbott and MLS could end up making a difference.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock