A member of the press conference overlooks Toyota Field. Photo by Scott Ball.
Toyota Field. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Major League Soccer (MLS) announced its requirements and timeline for expansion during a conference call with reporters on Thursday. MLS Commissioner Don Garber outlined the three main areas for expansion consideration, ownership, market, and stadium and specifically mentioned San Antonio as a strong candidate.

Ten cities have publicly stated their intentions of pursuing MLS, including San Antonio. Austin is notably absent from the list Garber presented. The conference call came just two days after MLS sent a survey out to soccer fans in San Antonio and Austin specifically asking about a franchise in Austin.

Four MLS teams will be added, and two will be selected in 2017. The next two teams will have to pay the league $150 million in expansion fees. Teams wishing to fill the next four spots are required to file their interest by Jan. 31, 2017.

“(The expansion fees are) the start of a huge investment in MLS from each group which will be well north of $300 million as additionally they will be investing in training and building out their administrative staff,” Garber said.

San Antonio may need less than $300 million as it already has a quality training facility in the South Texas Area Regional (STAR) Soccer Complex. Some stadium costs could be saved as Toyota Field, now home to the United Soccer League team San Antonio FC, was built with expansion in mind.

“As Major League Soccer announced specifics and timelines for expansion today, San Antonio FC will continue working with our community and our supporters as we pursue next steps towards MLS,” stated San Antonio FC officials in a news release.

Garber said MLS will be looking for “a committed ownership group, who loves our sport and believes in the league and who will support the sport at all levels.”

He noted San Antonio FC’s investment in the San Antonio FC Pro Academy which is expanding in 2017.

But, he said, “we also look at size of market and of course we look at corporate support, for other sports teams, corporate headquarters.”

San Antonio has struggled in the televised sports market. Austin consistently outperforms San Antonio in terms of viewership, with Austin rating ninth for the World Cup final in 2014 but San Antonio sitting at 20th, behind other sites like Las Vegas. This may be due to San Antonio not having an MLS team, while anecdotally MLS broadcasts are getting more popular in San Antonio since 2014.

Toyota Field, already built and ready to expand, is something few markets can offer. While there have been concerns about its location, about 12 miles north from downtown, MLS has recently deemphasized the importance of a downtown location. This issue may well be the most negotiable as two expansion teams, New York City FC and Atlanta United FC, have no stadium on the horizon. New York City FC plays out of Yankee Stadium, a venue difficult for soccer due to the different field dimensions for baseball.

Once interest is collected from candidate cities, Garber said, “we will work with our expansion committee to review these applications and have face-to-face meetings in the first, second, and potentially even the third quarters of 2017. They will explain these areas, outline their ownership structure, then the proposed site and plans. … With government approval, they will then submit a financial plan… this includes front-of-shirt jersey sponsorship – this is a new thing for us.”

San Antonio is in the running, he said. “It starts with the recent engagement with the Spurs and their expressed interest of bringing MLS here. I spent a great deal of time with Gordon Hartman and respect what he has done … but more needs to happen. We know the City and County officials have spent time getting together on Toyota Field and we are intrigued as we are in Austin.”

The City of San Antonio and Bexar County purchased Toyota Field from Hartman, local philanthropist and founder of Morgan’s Wonderland, for $18 million last year. Spurs Sports & Entertainment paid Hartman an additional $3 million and brought SAFC to the field.

The clear leader in these expansion talks is Sacramento.

“We probably speak to (Sacramento) more than any other expansion group,” Garber said, indicating there are really only three spots up for grabs. Journalists in Sacramento on the call sounded surprised that Sacramento was asked to go through the formal process.

MLS will make an announcement in the third quarter of 2017. The first two teams are expected to begin play in 2019.

Chris Hockman has been a freelance soccer journalist for over a decade, originally from Australia, Chris quickly started writing about soccer in San Antonio after moving to Texas in 2010. Chris is the...