Luke DeCock

Omitted from first group of expansion finalists, Raleigh’s MLS bid now knows what it has to do to catch up.

Will this downtown Raleigh Major League Soccer stadium happen?

An artist’s rendering of what a Major League Soccer stadium in downtown Raleigh might look like if North Carolina Football Club plans for a public-private partnership to build the facility come to be.
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An artist’s rendering of what a Major League Soccer stadium in downtown Raleigh might look like if North Carolina Football Club plans for a public-private partnership to build the facility come to be.

While it wasn’t surprising that Raleigh wasn’t among the four finalists announced Wednesday for the two MLS expansion bids to be awarded this year, the omission of the North Carolina FC-led bid does offer some clarity to just how far this market has to go to catch up.

Another two expansion teams are expected to be named at some point in 2018, and Raleigh is going to have to find a way to get past the two leftover finalists before then. What’s that going to take?

First, the downtown Raleigh stadium plan needs to be on more solid ground. NCFC owner Stephen Malik knew that getting in business with the state government was going to require patience and persistence – Charlotte-area legislators already scuttled a bill that would have allocated funding to study the stadium plan – and that has indeed been the case. Malik said Wednesday that negotiations continue, but at some point, there’s going to have to be tangible progress.

“We sort of knew, frankly, when we took on the challenge of the state government property, the timelines weren’t 100 percent in our control,” Malik said. “At the same time, we thought it was worth the challenge. We think it’s a very special location and to the extent we can move it along, we think it lines us up very well for the third or fourth spot.”

And second, the Triangle’s two existing pro teams – NCFC, which is moving from the ambitious but struggling NASL to its main competitor, USL; and the NWSL’s Carolina Courage – will have to demonstrate a better base of community support. That’s a long way of saying “butts in seats,” which isn’t the first time the franchise has used the promise of MLS to sell more tickets, albeit the first time since Malik bought the team.

But Malik said that the franchise has spent the past year rebranding, merging the area’s three massive youth clubs under one umbrella, bringing in the Courage on the eve of their season, preparing the MLS bid and working on the stadium plan and can now focus on growing NCFC again, hoping that the move to a league with more regional rivals will galvanize the fan base.

“I certainly can say this year we’re much more focused on getting some of those attendance challenges addressed,” Malik said.

The four expansion bids announced as finalists were the three most obvious – Sacramento, Cincinnati and Nashville – and the best-financed of the rest, Detroit. Of the trio of strong bids, the front-runners since the beginning of the process, the one that gets left out this time seems certain to get in next time.

That leaves Detroit as the Triangle’s main competition, and there are some flaws to that bid.

Detroit’s bid dropped building a soccer-specific stadium in the burgeoning downtown arena district in favor of playing home games at Ford Field, which is exactly the kind of thing MLS has eschewed in the past. It’s also a separate entity from Detroit’s existing and well-supported semi-pro team, Detroit City FC, which raises questions about community support.

But Detroit has the edge on Raleigh as a larger TV market and with extremely rich owners who already own NBA franchises.

Malik’s presence on the U.S. Soccer board of directors can act as a counterweight to the latter, but there’s nothing he can do about the former. To get past Detroit, Raleigh will need to finalize its stadium plan and rely on its 14,000-strong youth program to demonstrate community support. And there are still seven other bids out there lurking, although several – including Charlotte, Indianapolis and St. Louis – appear dead in the water.

“We’ve made a lot of progress in the last year,” Malik said. “If we make this much progress in the next year, we’re going to be in great shape.”

Wednesday’s omission wasn’t a surprise or a blow to Raleigh’s MLS hopes, but it does show just how far the Triangle still has to become a viable option for MLS. It’s doable, to be certain, but there’s a lot of work yet to be done and not much time to do it.

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

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