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St. Louis likely to get MLS team after league votes to expand to 30 teams

MLS with Garber

Carolyn Kindle Betz and Jim Kavanaugh, leaders of the group hoping to land a Major League Soccer franchise for St. Louis, flank commissioner Don Garber in a February visit to the league's headquarters in New York. (Photo courtesy of MLS4TheLou) 

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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. • Major League Soccer owners decided on Thursday to expand by three teams to 30 and enter into “exclusive, formal discussions” with the top two bidders — St. Louis and Sacramento — for spots in the league.

The decision ended weeks of speculation on which city’s bid would win. The league had long said it would expand only to 28.

“We had two very, very strong bids,” Commissioner Don Garber said after the owners’ spring meeting ended on Thursday.

At the same time, owners also voted to boost the cost of those teams by $50 million each, bumping the expansion fee from $150 million to $200 million.

Garber cautioned that the vote did not grant teams to Sacramento and St. Louis. But he said multiple times that the league would deal exclusively with the ownership groups from those two markets regarding teams 28 and 29. He expected the teams to start playing in 2021 or 2022.

The league has not set a timeline for the 30th team, he said. It is in discussions with several other cities.

League staff called the ownership groups in both St. Louis and Sacramento minutes after the meeting ended on Thursday, Garber said, to invite them to make formal presentations within the next few weeks to the MLS expansion committee, which vets proposals before taking them to the whole board.

The league, he said, will soon ask for “formal and final” plans regarding stadium design, corporate support, the makeup of the ownership group, fan development, player development, community programs and the “detailed economics” of team operations.

He hoped to have a final decision before the MLS All-Star game at the end of July in Orlando, Fla.

The St. Louis ownership group — World Wide Technology CEO Jim Kavanaugh and Enterprise Holdings’ Taylor family — were not available to comment.

But Carolyn Kindle Betz said in a statement that her group, while thrilled to hear the news, still has a lot of work to do. “This doesn’t guarantee us an expansion spot,” she said.

“We look forward to continue working with MLS and Commissioner Garber towards our goal of bringing MLS to the country’s soccer capital.”

Owners and supporters from across the country weighed in on Thursday evening.

“I think everybody is very impressed by the Taylor family,” said FC Dallas owner Clark Hunt.

“I wasn’t surprised,” said ESPN analyst and former league star Taylor Twellman, who grew up in St. Louis and has close relationships with owners and league staff. “I think there are very few cities in our country where soccer is at the heartbeat of the city, and St. Louis is one of those. Owners, at the start of this process, said St. Louis is one of those cities we have to have.”

Garber has said for months that bids in Sacramento and St. Louis were front runners, praising both for their markets, stadium plans and ownership groups.

Previous efforts didn’t have the right owners, Garber said on Thursday, and couldn’t put together stadium plans.

“The Taylor family stepped up and very quickly took leadership of the St. Louis bid,” Garber said.

Still, he said on Thursday that St. Louis is behind Sacramento in its stadium and financing plans.

“In St. Louis’ case, they still have a lot of work to do with the city and the state in order to finalize their stadium situation,” Garber said.

The league had been worried about corporate support in St. Louis, but after visiting in March, Garber was impressed with the table of executives the Taylors had gathered to meet with MLS leaders.

The effort has since further impressed, Garber said Thursday, and is now working on final commitments on stadium naming rights and jersey sponsorship. He declined to name the sponsors.

“We’re very encouraged by the level of interest and level of support for bringing Major League Soccer to St. Louis,” he said. “I think it speaks a lot about the Taylor family, who are great community leaders.”

The Taylors and their MLS bid, said Garber, are working to bring St. Louis back to its glory days.

St. Louis, he said, is a “city on the rise.”

Soccer in St. Louis has a rich history

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