MLS expansion: No timeline on decision, but league has ‘made the most progress in Cincinnati’

FC Cincinnati lost to New York Red Bulls 3-2 in overtime of their 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup semifinal game Tuesday, Aug. 15 at Nippert Stadium on the University of Cincinnati Campus in Cincinnati. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

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FC Cincinnati lost to New York Red Bulls 3-2 in overtime of their 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup semifinal game Tuesday, Aug. 15 at Nippert Stadium on the University of Cincinnati Campus in Cincinnati. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

It appears the competition for the next Major League Soccer expansion club essentially is down to two, but it looks like no announcement will come before the league’s 23rd season begins Saturday.

FC Cincinnati sent out a statement Wednesday from MLS executive vice president of communications Dan Courtemanche that seemed to rule out Detroit as one of the remaining finalists for its 26th team.

MLS awarded Nashville a franchise in late December, then officially announced MLS Miami in January and was considering Cincinnati, Sacramento and Detroit for the next spot, which originally was expected by the end of 2017. The league decided to hold off on a decision until "early 2018" with hopes the announcement could be made before the start of the MLS season, but now is backing off any kind of timeline.

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Courtemanche indicates Cincinnati has emerged to the front of the pack.

“Although we have not finalized any agreements and all of the finalist markets remain under consideration, we have made the most progress in Cincinnati,” Courtemanche said. “Also, we continue to have discussions with Sacramento.

“We don’t have, and don’t need to have, a fixed deadline, and we will wait until all of the necessary elements are in place before selecting the next club. Whether the announcement is in a few weeks or a couple months is dependent on finalizing the details, but we do not anticipate that it will be an extended period of time.”

There was no mention of Detroit, which has long been considered an outsider after its ownership group pitched the use of the NFL Lions’ Ford Field as the club’s stadium. Detroit reportedly has not presented anything other than that plan, and MLS hasn’t changed its stance on wanting soccer-specific stadiums.

Meanwhile, Cincinnati continues to work to nail down its stadium plan, but FC Cincinnati maintains it still has three potential sites for a $200 million privately financed facility. The club presented Oakley as its preferred location when the finalists met with the MLS expansion committee on Dec. 6 to submit their bids, but lately has been in talks with officials and residents in the West End to build where the current Taft High School football stadium sits — with plans to build a new $10 million Stargel Stadium across the street from the school.

Newport also remains in play, according to president and general manager Jeff Berding.

“The whole point is let’s win the bid and figure out where is the best place to put a $200 million privately financed stadium to do the most good for our community,” he told WCPO’s Tanya O’Rourke on a recent segment of “This Week in Cincinnati.”

Sacramento’s pitch reportedly still lacks a billionaire investor that MLS desires after one-time partner Meg Whitman backed out at the last minute, but the Sacramento Republic FC ownership group reportedly has had “serious conversations with several potential investors,” according to a Feb. 15 article published on the Sacramento Bee’s website.

Grounds making began on the club’s new stadium in July but actual construction will not begin unless the city is awarded an MLS franchise.

“Sacramento’s path to MLS is clear,” Republic FC CEO and Chairman Kevin Nagle told the Sacramento Bee. “We’ve proven the strength of our market, downtown stadium plan and local investor support. Now, our final task is to deliver a lead investor with the vision, credibility and wherewithal to put us over the top. We are in detailed conversations with several groups that fit that bill, and confident that we’ll find the right partner to deliver the MLS club our fans and community deserve.”

FC Cincinnati will host Sacramento Republic FC in a preseason game at Nippert Stadium on March 10, as Cincinnati prepares for its third season and the Republic its fifth.

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