Cincinnati move puts crimp in Detroit's MLS hopes

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — It looks like The Queen City may well beat The Motor City into Major League Soccer.

The Cincinnati City Council Monday approved $33.8 million in infrastructure financing for a soccer stadium, clearing the way for MLS to award an expansion franchise to the Ohio city, instead of Detroit.

The vote came one day before an MLS board of governors meeting in Los Angeles Tuesday to discuss the expansion, which the league has twice delayed.

While the stadium deal in Cincinnati followed a meandering, uncertain path to the final government approval, the Detroit bid sat before MLS, a league yearning for expansion, for five months.

The local proposal by the billionaire businessmen and NBA owners Dan Gilbert and Tom Gores, and Martha Firestone Ford, who owns the Lions, remained fully-prepared since December, the original deadline for MLS action, while Cincinnati scrambled to secure one of three sites, amid community and government opposition.

The Detroit proposal would put the soccer pitch in Ford Field, after Gilbert and Gores originally proposed playing in a new stadium, designed specifically for soccer, on the site of the troubled Wayne County jail, near Greektown.

MLS officials clearly preferred to wait for Cincinnati and the final government approvals for a soccer-specific, privately financed, 21,000-seat stadium, that would lie between Nippert Stadium and I-75, along the riverfront of the city.

With the outcome of the vote Monday at a special city council meeting in doubt until the city clerk called the roll, MLS exercised extreme patience.

The stadium site is in the West End, a Cincinnati neighborhood raised in the 1950s for urban renewal projects that remains in search of needed revitalization 60 years later.

The proposal, which includes land owned by the Cincinnati Public Schools, faced significant local opposition from residents.
MLS has delayed awarding the second franchise in its most recent round of expansion, after making the first award to Nashville.

In addition to Cincinnati, Detroit is competing with Sacramento for a slot in the highest-ranking professional soccer league in North America.

A spokesman for the Detroit bidders declined comment Monday.

The proposal to play at Ford Field, which would be the only indoor stadium in Major League Soccer, flies in the face of the publicly stated intentions of league officials to expand to cities that develop soccer-specific stadiums in urban centers.

But MLS Commissioner Don Garber also has said the Detroit bid makes good use of Ford Field.

Garber has praised the MLS experience in Atlanta, where the Atlanta United FC shared Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and its retractable roof, with the Falcons of the NFL.

That type of venue, however, is plainly not among the top priorities for MLS.

If Cincinnati receives the franchise, Detroit and Sacramento will remain in the running for even more MLS expansion. The league announced in 2016 it would award two franchises in 2017 and two more as soon as 2018.

But with an earlier bid from Miami, which includes the retired soccer star David Beckham, awarded just recently, some government officials in Nashville seeking to reopen their deal, and Cincinnati so hard pressed to site a stadium, awarding two more franchises before the end of the year seems like a challenging timetable.

Meanwhile, Detroit is likely to face stiff competition once again.

An early leader in the current round, Sacramento had begun clearing land for its soccer-specific stadium when some of the deep pockets among the financers of the bid backed out.

New financing is the only requirement to make the city a formidable bidder, again.

Republic FC, which plays in the United Soccer League, is reportedly negotiating with several potential investors.

And there are recent developments reported in Phoenix, San Diego and Raleigh, N.C., which are also possible competitors against Detroit in the next round of MLS expansion.