By DAVE SKRETTA, Associated Press
KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — Major League Soccer isn't content to rest once its latest franchise joins the fold in 2015.
Instead, the league plans to expand to 24 teams by the 2020 season.
Commissioner Don Garber announced MLS's plan to add four more clubs during halftime of its annual All-Star game Wednesday night. The location of the teams has yet to be decided, but Garber said the league has already had discussions with potential owners.
The news came one day after Hunt Sports Group announced it was selling the Columbus Crew to investor Anthony Precourt, and with New York City FC beginning play in two years.
"The strength, passion and vision of the MLS ownership group is the foundation behind the success of our league," Garber said in a statement. "We look forward to adding new partners with the same commitment to the sport and love of the game."
Garber told The Associated Press during an interview this week that the issue of expansion would be discussed "in great detail" during a meeting of league owners on Wednesday.
"As MLS enters a period of accelerated growth," Garber said, "the addition of new teams will allow us to expand our geographic coverage, grow our fan base and help us achieve our vision of being among the best leagues in the world by 2022."
MLS will have added 10 new teams since the 2005 season when New York City FC begins play, and Garber said that has helped to spearhead a significant growth in the game in the United States.
"These expansion clubs have contributed to the vitality of our league," he said, "bringing passionate fans, new traditions and committed owners with new ideas."
One of the most intriguing ownership possibilities is former Los Angeles Galaxy star David Beckham, whose MLS contract included an option to purchase a franchise when his career ended.
Beckham has been linked to businessman Marcelo Claure, who owns Bolivian team Club Bolivar. The two appear interested in putting a team in Miami, where Claure's wireless company Brightstar Corp. is based. Beckham has said he plans to reveal his MLS intentions in the next few months.
"The foundations are now there for this sport to continue to grow," Beckham said last fall. "I've seen it grow in the last six years, and we all want it to continue to grow. My commitment as an owner, people will be well aware of that in the new year, and hopefully where that will be. And like I said, my commitment as an ambassador for this sport and this country won't change."
It makes sense that potential owners are lining up for an MLS franchise.
They can be had for a fraction of what a Major League Baseball or NBA team would cost — it cost English club Manchester City and its partner, the New York Yankees, an expansion fee of $100 million to launch New York City FC. Yet surging attendance and modest but consistent television growth appear to indicate that the league is becoming a valuable investment.
That's certainly changed from the early days of MLS, when an ownership group could acquire a franchise for less than $10 million and the league was fighting for survival.
"We've got a lot of cities that are kind of on our list right now that are exuberant — they have the right sort of circumstances," said Robb Heineman, the CEO of Sporting KC. "Our league is hot right now. If you don't believe in Major League Soccer, I don't know why."
Miami isn't the only city to be linked to an MLS team. Officials in Atlanta, Sacramento, Orlando, Detroit and the Twin Cities have also mentioned the possibility of landing a franchise.
In a statement issued by the league, Garber laid out the criteria the league will use in determining future expansion markets. Among them is location, committed and engaged ownership, a comprehensive stadium plan, demonstrated fan support for professional soccer, support of sponsors and TV partners, and a strategic business plan for launching a club.
Garber said the league will provide additional details, including a more detailed timeline, for its expansion plans in the coming months.
"The overall growth of the sport has been so dramatic over the last number of years by almost any measure," Garber said. "Whether it's the league or the national team or the women's game, all the developments are sort of proving the fact that we're a soccer nation."
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