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Latest Major League Soccer expansion talks don’t include Phoenix

(Photo courtesy of Phoenix Rising FC)

TEMPE – Major League Soccer has been on the rise since the league’s reimagining of the early 2000s. After financial setbacks and attendance concerns dropped the league back down to 10 teams, a shift of focus to American players as well as the U.S. men’s international success has found MLS growing at a fever pitch.

The league sits at 24 teams with three more being added, one at a time, during the next three years. With the stated goal of 30 teams becoming a clearer reality, the MLS board of governors has now narrowed its field by two more. Phoenix is not one of those two.

On Wednesday, the MLS board announced its intentions of hearing more in-depth proposals from Sacramento and St. Louis, now front-runners for two of the remaining three spots for entry into the top tier of stateside soccer.

“The decision to grant those teams has not been made, but they are both pretty far along,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said at a press conference after the board of governors meeting in Los Angeles. “There’s work that needs to be done in both markets.”

The Phoenix Rising Football Club, like its namesake and even the fluid shape of soccer in the states, has taken different names, served in different locations and seen its share of attendance and financial woes.

Those days are in the past.

With attendance up in a vast area capable of producing an onslaught of new ticket-holders, the team is only concerned with what’s ahead. That road includes building on the successful 2018 campaign that came up one spot shy of the championship.

Phoenix already boasts teams in each major sport as well as one of the highest-attended party stops on the PGA Tour. PRFC has a diverse ownership that includes a record producer, a baseball player, an accomplished Chinese billionaire and a principal that cut his teeth in Hell, the cheerful nickname of Ali Sami Yen, former home to Turkish side Galatasaray S.K.

The ownership group has had designs on breaking free of the United Soccer League, the second division of professional soccer, and gaining entry to the top-flight of MLS and they haven’t been coy about it. Ambitious but calculated targeting, the kind that comes with a realistic understanding of the true market, is in play. The area’s sizable and soccer passionate Hispanic population can watch the games broadcast in Spanish. Owners believe that just across the Salt River is a horde of 80,000 students at ASU waiting to be converted.

With a clear vision for how the Rising want to cement themselves within the Phoenix area, they joined with a local design firm and a global architecture firm in creating an environmentally responsive stadium. This would be a massive step forward from the current, completely open-air, 6,600 bleacher seat, Casino Arizona Field they currently occupy.

Phoenix FC, with partners Populace and Gould Evans, already has a state of the art, standalone 21,000 seat stadium designed with the casual fans, purists of the game and the summer heat in mind. By maximizing shade over the pitch and nearly all seating as well as focusing on air-flow throughout the stadium, a recessed field of play and stands that resemble the intimate and raucous terraces found in European football, the estimated $250 million dollar privately funded venture only needs to clear one more hurdle to be built: MLS expansion approval.

The league’s announcement of St. Louis and Sacramento as the probable landing spots for the next wave of expansion came as a surprise to many. The two cities also carry teams in the USL and have powerhouse financial backers of their own and St. Louis is a historical hotbed of soccer in the US.

While Sacramento and St. Louis get to deepen their proposals, it will take more than the required $200 million league entry fee to finalize anything. MLS has expressed a desire to try to envision what the league will look like in the decades ahead for the sport and want to make sure that the teams therein are adhering to that vision of expanding the sport in America.

Phoenix, on the other hand, will not need to start from scratch, but will need to redouble its efforts in competition for that potential 30th spot. The competition will get even more cluttered as Detroit, Charlotte as well as the new pioneer in professional sports, Las Vegas, are all expected to be in the mix for what could be the final spot in a booming business.

For PRFC the task remains proving that they are major players in a major market, with all the tools to breed success on and off the pitch. A recent partnership with Galatasaray expands the borders for talent as well as new marketing opportunities, expanded training for personnel and the insight that can be gleaned from a club with over a hundred years of history. The Rising certainly appear to be making all the right moves, they just need the right people to take notice.