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MLS expansion fee enters the stratosphere — who can afford it?

Major League Soccer's ambition of being a true player in the world's club game by the 2026 World Cup is slowly being realized. 

The league's 28th season kicks off Saturday with a new team (St. Louis City SC), a new 10-year partnership with Apple TV (worth $250M per season) that's available in over 100 countries and Tuesday's announcement of a three-year extension with Audi that pays a multimillion-dollar fee annually.

Suddenly it's very easy to understand why a club like LAFC became the first MLS franchise to be worth $1 billion. The idea is that this valuation is only going to skyrocket ahead of 2026, and that's why — after Charlotte FC paid a $325 million expansion fee to join the league in 2019 — Forbes is reporting that the new price of admission will be $500 million. 

When you factor in the league's demand of a soccer-specific stadium being built, you realize the astronomical cost of joining MLS at this point. That's what led Bill Foley, owner of the NHL's Vegas Golden Knights, to ultimately pursue an investment in Premier League side Bournemouth ($126 million for a 50.1% stake) rather than bringing MLS to Vegas.

"I've looked at it, I've examined it and I was pretty serious about it," Foley said when asked about MLS by the BBC. "MLS, unfortunately, requires a stadium to be built and, in the United States, that is costing $600-700 million. The franchise fee itself, I think, is $300 million so you are into it for a billion dollars before you have a team. I thought Bournemouth was a bargain. I'm buying a Premier League team that already has a stadium, already has players and I can improve it. I don't see us being involved in MLS. I'm just not that interested."

The bad news for Foley, of course, is that Bournemouth are currently in 17th place and just one point above the drop zone. Relegation would certainly damage his investment, whereas that's just not possible in MLS. 

There are other potential ownership groups interested in bringing MLS to Las Vegas, and the league is almost certainly announcing its 30th team at some point this year. There's always been talk of MLS reaching 32 teams by 2026, so who appears to be leading the race now? 

Major League Soccer expansion: 2023 and beyond  

Team #30: San Diego 

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MLS commissioner Don Garber has made no secret of his desire to get a team in San Diego. There was a big failure in 2018 when the voting public vetoed a "SoccerCity" project and the construction of a new stadium, but that problem has been solved by the opening of Snapdragon Stadium in 2022.

The 32,000-seat ground is home to both the San Diego State Aztecs college football team and the NWSL's San Diego Wave, and the Wave demonstrated the city's passion for soccer with a sellout crowd against Angel City before drawing over 26,000 for a playoff game against Chicago. 

There's also a successful USL Championship side there in San Diego Loyal (Landon Donovan is the executive VP). Things are looking pretty good, and it's probably just about finding the necessary investors to pay for it all. That shouldn't be a problem, and San Diego seems to have taken the lead with Las Vegas still figuring out its stadium. 

Team #31: Las Vegas  

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Billionaire partners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens (Aston Villa, Vitória SC) are behind it, so there's no question of cash. The two have been negotiating with MLS for a while, and it feels like the announcement could be imminent.

The proposed indoor stadium, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, would seat 25,000-30,000 fans on a plot of land near Las Vegas Boulevard and Warm Springs Road.

"We've got a lot of work to do because you clearly need to build an indoor MLS stadium," Garber said. "Stadiums are expensive. Indoor stadiums are really expensive. So we'll see how all that plays out."

Maybe Las Vegas' team could work out an agreement to play at the Raiders' Allegiant Stadium while a soccer-specific facility is being made? Vegas has welcomed its pro teams with open arms. The Golden Knights are already almost worth $1 billion (a valuation increase of 36% in just one year) and the Raiders are worth $5.1 billion (49% increase). 

Team #32: Phoenix? Sacramento? Ottawa?!

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San Diego and Las Vegas are the clear frontrunners, but the league's 32nd team is a pretty big mystery at this point.

Phoenix has a lot going for it — the fifth-largest city in the country, 11th largest media market, a USL Championship side in Phoenix Rising that draws big crowds — but its facing the same problems as Las Vegas but without the backing of two billionaires. A new indoor stadium would be required, and that's a long way from happening.

Sacramento has a USL Championship team that led the league in attendance last year (10,172 per match) and it's been on the league's radar for a long time. The city was on the verge of joining MLS and beginning play in 2023, but lead investor Ron Burkle pulled out of the deal and things collapsed. With new investors, Sacramento could try again.

Ottawa made a brief play over a decade ago, and I'm including Canada's sixth-largest city here as a wild card. Atlético Ottawa, owned by Atlético Madrid, plays in the Canadian Premier League and had the second-highest league attendance in 2022. There's a fierce NHL rivalry between Ottawa, Toronto and Montréal, and maybe we can have some of that in MLS.

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