Major League Soccer has named its finalists for the 2020 round of expansion. Two franchises will join the league that year, the new entrants coming from among Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville and Sacramento. Those additions come on the heels of Los Angeles FC, which joins MLS next season, and David Beckham’s Miami expansion team, which, at its current rate, might start play only shortly before the Earth crashes into the sun.
Of those four potential cities, it’s hard to say which two the league will select. But I know who I’m rooting for.
A convincing case can be made for or against any of the four cities. The groups in Nashville and Detroit have ridiculously deep pockets. Sacramento and Nashville have new stadium plans ready to go, Cincinnati is on the verge of getting approval for a stadium site, and Detroit has Ford Field lined up.
Detroit and Sacramento are huge markets. Nashville’s Stanley Cup run last year showed North America what an excellent sports town it can be. If Columbus picks up and moves to Austin, then Cincinnati would be the league’s only market in Ohio. Depending on which side you look from, each one of the four sites looks like a shoo-in or an also-ran.
I’m partial to Sacramento and Cincinnati, where soccer is already thriving. In Sacramento, the Republic was the second-division United Soccer League’s greatest success story, drawing a nearly unheard-of 10,000-plus fans to every game. Then in 2016, Cincinnati came along and blew Sacramento’s numbers out of the water, averaging more than 20,000 fans per game. As someone who watched Minnesota struggle for years in the lower divisions, then graduate into the MLS ranks, I’ll always be partial to clubs with a history, rather than teams that exist solely to produce glitzy stadium renderings.
One of MLS’ biggest struggles is that it tends to feel more like it was cooked up on the desk of an apparel marketing executive, rather than like an authentic sports league. Promoting teams that already exist, like Sacramento and Cincinnati, works against that perception of inauthenticity. Potential teams like Nashville and Detroit, meanwhile, are “brands,” not teams. A soccer team talking about its brand is maddening. Let teams be teams. Let Detroit and Nashville’s rich owners start teams first, then consider whether they belong in MLS.
Take the Wilfs, part of the potential Nashville ownership group. The Vikings owners could easily have purchased Minnesota’s lower-division franchise back before Bill McGuire bought the team. There would have been an MLS team playing at U.S. Bank Stadium this season, if the Wilfs had bothered to care about soccer at any point. It’s hard to get excited about their Nashville bid now that they’ve discovered there might be a buck in this soccer racket after all.
I hope the league values teams over deep pockets in this expansion round. Given the league’s previous moves, this seems unlikely. But this old lower-division soccer fan can hope.
• FIFA held the draw for the 2018 World Cup on Friday (Diego Maradona, above, showed England), but most of the news about the organization is coming out of New York courtrooms. Witnesses have detailed how officials from across the Americas took huge bribes in exchange for TV rights deals and, in one case, how 22 FIFA voters took million-dollar bribes to put the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Not surprisingly, FIFA’s own investigations have failed to turn up such wrongdoing. The organization is having trouble attracting sponsorships for the World Cup. Most new slots are going to Qatari or Chinese companies. The organization has reportedly attracted just one (of a planned 20) Russian sponsors for next year’s tournament.
• As for the draw itself, Mexico drew one of the most difficult groups, with Germany, Sweden, and South Korea. Costa Rica will also have a tough road, having drawn Brazil, Switzerland and Serbia. Panama was drawn with Belgium, England and Tunisia. It’s possible that no CONCACAF team will reach the knockout round next summer.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Bundesliga: Borussia Dortmund at Bayer Leverkeusen, 8:30 a.m. Saturday, FS2. Dortmund hasn’t won in the Bundesliga since September, and its defense is in shambles. Last week, BVB led Schalke 4-0 at halftime, then gave up four goals in the second half. Another defensive disaster would see coach Peter Bosz out the door.
Premier League: Manchester United at Arsenal, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Ch. 11. The old Premier League enemies are in the strange position of fighting for scraps, with Manchester City’s near-perfect start leaving everyone else behind. United manager Jose Mourinho (above left) hates Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger (above right), but the rivalry seems dimmer this year.
Liga MX: America at Tigres, 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Univision. Tigres holds the upper hand in the playoff semifinals after winning 1-0 in Mexico City on Wednesday. A home draw or a win and it will be back in the playoff finals for the third time running and fourth time in five tries. A remarkable run for the Monterrey-based giants.
Serie A: Lazio at Sampdoria, 1:30 p.m. Sunday, beIN. Sampdoria has been one of Italy’s surprises this year, culminating in a victory over mighty Juventus. Of course, the next week, Sampdoria went out and lost 3-0 to Bologna, so dreams of title contention are probably out. But a place in Europe is within the team’s grasp.