Local soccer fans should not count on a Major League Soccer expansion coming to San Antonio any time soon. That’s the message that came from MLS commissioner Don Garber during a Q&A with The Associated Press’ sports editors Thursday afternoon.
In that meeting, Garber was asked to list the potential expansion cities, and placed San Antonio fifth on the list behind Sacramento, St. Louis, Detroit and San Diego. That would give California five teams in a 28 team league, leaving Texas with two teams.
That would put San Antonio in a difficult spot, as Garber starts to talk about expanding the league to 28 teams, but there hasn’t been much discussion beyond that. During the meeting, Garber said that after the most recent round of expansion– the jump from 24 to 28 teams– that there would be at least a 10 year wait for any further expansion.
Garber’s statement hinted that the next expansion will happen in 2020, which would leave San Antonio without any possible access to MLS until at least 2030. It was always clear that San Antonio had to be among the next four selected teams to have a shot at MLS, but sitting in the 29th spot in Garber’s list highlights how much work has to be done.
Only two of the cities ahead of San Antonio in that list currently have a professional soccer team, Sacramento and St. Louis, while Detroit has a side in the elite amateur National Premier Soccer League. Both Sacramento and St. Louis play at soccer specific venues, however only Sacramento’s was built with MLS in mind. If MLS came to St. Louis, they would likely need a whole new stadium to be built.
Sacramento has long been considered a great candidate for MLS expansion, with a stadium ready for expansion and packed crowds, they have ticked all the boxes, including support from the city. St. Louis FC is only in their second season, but their venue is under 6,000 seats, with the average match attendance below 5,000, and there has been little indication of the city’s support for it, something the league considers of vital importance.
Detroit, also ahead of San Antonio on Garber’s list, has a fervent supporter base for their NPSL side, Detroit City, and has invested heavily in a stadium. But the costs at NPSL level are much lower than for professional soccer and no owner has yet come forward for an MLS bid.
The city on the list that leaves most fans puzzled is San Diego, who currently has no professional soccer team in their city. It seems clear that Garber is trying to jump on the departure of the NFL from the city despite there being no ownership group, no soccer specific stadium, and no proof that supporters would come out for American soccer teams, despite the Mexican National Team drawing big crowds when they play in the city.
All these factors have left San Antonio soccer fans puzzled. San Antonio FC seemingly checks all the boxes, they have a stadium ready for expansion, they have fan support, the support of the city, and in Spurs Sports and Entertainment they have a strong ownership group. Garber’s reasoning for looking at St. Louis because of “its proximity to Kansas City,” would seem to speak more to San Antonio, close to two MLS cities.
Spurs Sports and Entertainment given a 2022 deadline by the city and the county to secure an MLS team or be faced with paying back the investment in the stadium, it is imperative for the owners that they be one of the next four teams in to the league.
So why is it that Garber seems so reluctant to talk of San Antonio as a major contender for league expansion? The answer to that may be found way back in 2005, when the City of San Antonio gave Major League Soccer a major black eye.
Former City Mayor Ed Garza, a soccer fan, pushed for an MLS team, and looked to place the team in the Alamodome. That decision became fatal for Garza, as the deal was widely criticized and became an election issue, bringing Phil Hardberger in to office.
At the time Garber was promoting the benefits of having team play out of an Alamodome, which was bleeding red ink.
“What are the alternatives?”said then-Mayor Garza in a 2005 interview with AP. “To continue to lose money or to try to find a major league sports tenant that creates opportunities to make money.” Hardberger’s alternative for the Alamodome was clear, he wanted an NFL team to play there, another pipe dream that has yet to materialize.
The fact that it became an election issue stung MLS and Garber who said “(the deal) has been changed at the 12th hour due to politics, and it is appalling.”
While 2005’s deal would have been a bad one for the city at the time, it’s hard not to look back and think what could have been. The costs of entering MLS now are significantly higher, perhaps over 10 times what would have been needed in 2005, and those costs will only continue to rise.
While many San Antonio fans do not remember 2005 and what could have been, it seems clear that Garber does. So while San Antonio does check all of the boxes, apart from stadium location, for MLS expansion, they may need to check them doubly so to convince Garber and MLS to take a chance on a city that has fooled them once before.
Top Image: A man overlooks the newly opened Toyota Field. Photo by Scott Ball.