ORLANDO — MLS Commissioner Don Garber has watched soccer survive and thrive in the South.
The league’s marquee event, the MLS All-Star Game, was hosted in Atlanta this year and drew a record crowd of more than 72,000. The All-Star Game will be at Orlando City Stadium in 2019. Nashville and Miami are set to join the league in the near future — with Nashville recently securing approval for a soccer-specific stadium.
Garber said he’s confident soccer can survive below the Mason-Dixon Line, and, for now, he doesn’t see any more southeastern clubs joining the league.
“There was a real strategy, strategically, as we were developing our league, to get south of Washington D.C. That was an important development for us. That then goes to Orlando and Atlanta and Nashville, and soon in Miami. We had a very, very focused effort to expand to the southeast,” Garber said to reporters after the announcement of the 2019 MLS All-Star Game in Orlando.
“It’s a hotbed of soccer in the grassroots level. There’s enormous energy and diversity that exists in this part of the country. I think we’re probably done expanding in the southeast for a little while, but we’re feeling pretty good about it.”
During a later meeting with Pro Soccer USA, Garber said Charlotte and Raleigh are still very much in play, but the league is being careful about growing the right way and giving new teams the best chance to succeed. As a result, he has no timeline for when more expansion teams will be added.
MLS is still reportedly looking to expand to 28 total teams. Cities such as Phoenix, Detroit, San Diego and Sacramento are in the running. The Tampa Bay Rowdies, currently in the United Soccer League, also submitted a bid to become an MLS expansion team. They were one of 12 ownership groups to submit bids. FC Cincinnati was the most recent club to join MLS and is expected to begin play next season. The league is expected to announce two additional expansion by the end of the year. The expansion process has been fluid, with flexibility on deadlines and frequent adjustments.
The league has history in the southeast. The Miami Fusion and the Tampa Bay Mutiny both folded in 2001, though the league was far less stable back then.
Inter Miami, backed by superstar David Beckham, recently unveiled its crest and colors.