MLS Expansion: Making the case for Raleigh, NC

PETERBOROUGH, ENGLAND - AUGUST 01: A generic shot of floodlights during the pre-season friendly match between Peterborough United and Aston Villa at London Road Stadium on August 1, 2012 in Peterborough, England. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
PETERBOROUGH, ENGLAND - AUGUST 01: A generic shot of floodlights during the pre-season friendly match between Peterborough United and Aston Villa at London Road Stadium on August 1, 2012 in Peterborough, England. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images) /

The MLS expansion train rolled on this past week, as the bid team from Raleigh, NC welcomed the league to town and revealed their new stadium design.

There has never been a time in MLS history in which the expansion fever has reached such heights. Twelve cities across the US are bidding for four MLS expansion slots to be announced over the next 16 months. If it were easy, Don Garber would welcome in all 12 locations and explode the league’s reach.

However, only four will be selected, and the jockeying for position continues each week. On Wednesday the North Carolina Football Club hosted the MLS expansion committee as they provided details on their ideal stadium location and initial design. But the real question is, why should MLS pick Raleigh over so many other cities?

The Announcement

Ever since Steve Malik took over as the new owner the organization has been on a focused mission of elevating soccer in the Triangle (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill). Rebranded the Carolina Railhawks to North Carolina FC, purchasing and relocating the NWSL Champions Western New York Flash (now North Carolina Courage), and partnering with a massive youth network.

"At the announcement, Malik stated, “This is another important step in our pursuit of a Major League Soccer Franchise. Our vision is to make this facility a crown jewel for downtown Raleigh, providing a world-class sporting and social experience for fans and the community. We are ready to engage all of the relevant constituents, including our community members, legislators, city, county and state officials, to address questions and concerns and bring this vision to life.”"

The Location

Currently, NCFC (in NASL) play at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, NC, located about nine miles west of downtown Raleigh. The 10,000 seat stadium has been great for the growth of the game in the area and is ideally located in the center of family communities.

Now as the organization shifts from weekend entertainment to top flight soccer, a move to Raleigh is needed. The club is focused on acquiring the land just north of downtown and blocks away from the state capitol building.

Other bidding cities already have their target land locked down, which is a deduction for the #919toMLS movement, but just for the moment. The location would be within walking distance of an already vibrant scene, and one that would only grow northward about the potential stadium. Expect the city to work with Malik on making the location a reality.

A Soccer Culture

While soccer has always been a part of the Raleigh area at the youth and collegiate levels, the debut of the Railhawks gave the entire Triangle a focal point. Over that decade the growth of the sport’s reach has continued:

  • Expansion of WakeMed Soccer Park to 10,000 seats
  • Hosting the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Final Four
  • Hosting the USWNT
  • Acquiring the North Carolina Courage (who currently lead the NWSL – pictured below)
  • Welcoming in EPL sides West Ham United and Swansea City
  • Partnering with the massively popular CASL youth soccer organization (home to over 13,000 players) that will feed into the club’s men’s and women’s youth teams
  • Home to 21 (seriously) time NCAA Women’s Soccer Champions – the University of North Carolina, and three NCAA Men’s Soccer Titles (UNC 2 and Duke 1)

The Market

The MLS lists strong ownership, an established fan base, and concrete stadium plans as the three core pillars they are looking for. But growing the league’s TV market and footprint across the country are just as important.

  • Population: The Triangle area has roughly 2 million people and is one of the top 10 fastest growing regions in the US.
  • TV Market: Ranks 24th, which tops current MLS cities Portland, Columbus, Kansas City, and Salt Lake City.
  • Sports Culture: While the city has the NHL franchise the Carolina Hurricanes, college sports is the current king of the region. Home to Duke, North Carolina, and NC State, all solid college soccer programs, the area has a history of supportive fans.
  • Footprint: The MLS has, and will continue to, have a focus on expanding in the southeast of the US. Both Orlando and Atlanta have been instant successes. With Raleigh, Charlotte, Tampa and Nashville all in the pool of 12, the region should see two new teams awarded.

Next: Whitecaps sign New Zealand goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic

Best case scenario, MLS fans find out the first expansion selection city at the All-Star game next month. Worst case, everyone has to wait until the MLS Cup Final week in December to learn the first two teams announced in 2017.

You can easily make an argument for 2/3rds of the bids desiring a spot. Meaning no matter what happens solid ownership groups with hopeful fans will be left out. It’ll be a tough setback for those areas, but a great place for the league to be.

MLS wants a strong owner. Check. MLS wants soccer specific stadiums, in metro areas. Targeted. MLS wants supportive fans. Already there for the past 10 years. Commitment to growing soccer? Purchased the NWSL’s champions, to give them a better home and more resources. Helping the youth soccer community? It would be tough for any city to top a youth academy of 13,000.

Raleigh is ready for MLS.