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Major League Soccer holds off on expansion decision

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Dan Gilbert.

Detroit — A bid to bring a Major League Soccer expansion franchise to Detroit remained alive Tuesday, when the league's board of governors made no decision on expanding to Cincinnati, despite local approval Monday for a privately-finance stadium there.

The MLS governors met and discussed a number of topics, “including a review of potential expansion finalists Cincinnati, Detroit and Sacramento,” the league said in a prepared statement.

“The MLS Board of Governors viewed the recent Cincinnati City Council vote on the West End stadium as a positive step forward for Cincinnati’s expansion bid. While there was no plan for formal a expansion vote at today’s Board of Governors meeting, the League will continue discussions with the three expansion finalists.”

NBA owners and billionaires Dan Gilbert and Tom Gores propose playing Major League Soccer at Ford Field, in cooperation with Martha Firestone Ford, owner of the Lions.

But MLS has made repeatedly clear that it prefers stadiums designed specifically for soccer.

The Cincinnati stadium, designed specifically for soccer, would also be in an urban center, another priority of the league.

Cincinnati FC currently plays in the United Soccer League. Officials of the club, who are spearheading the bid, and the city reportedly said Monday night that they believed all of the details of their proposal were in place for review by MLS.

The 5-4 vote by the Cincinnati City Council at about 6 p.m., Monday might not have allowed enough time for the board of governors to make a full review less than 24 hours later.

Sacramento already has begun site preparation for a soccer-specific stadium, but has had trouble keeping owners with deep pockets involved in its proposed expansion group.

In Detroit, Gilbert and Gores originally proposed playing in a new stadium designed specifically for soccer at the site of the troubled, unfinished Wayne County jail.

When they later switched to Ford Field, MLS complimented the group, but restated its preference for a different stadium.

“Although MLS has tremendous respect for all of the owners involved in the Detroit bid, we have not had an opportunity to evaluate the amended application and it would be premature for MLS to offer a specific comment on it,” the league said in a prepared statement last year.

“MLS continues to prioritize soccer-specific stadiums as a criteria for the selection of MLS expansion markets.”

More recently, MLS Commissioner Don Garber said that the Detroit bid provides for an interesting way of accommodating a soccer pitch in Ford Field.

But the Detroit bid has remained under consideration for five months — while Cincinnati has proceeded haltingly — without MLS rewarding the franchise to Gilbert, Gores and Ford.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber has expressed pleasure with the MLS experience in Atlanta, where Atlanta United plays in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the home field for the NFL Falcons.

But Arthur Blank, the co-founder of Home Depot and owner of the Falcons and Atlanta United, had Mercedes-Benz Stadium designed for both MLS and the NFL. Blank even consulted with MLS officials during the design and construction phases of the project, seeking their suggestions and approval.

MLS officials have not changed their priority for soccer-specific stadiums.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium also has a retractable roof.

If Detroit is not awarded the franchise, its bid and that of the other failing finalist will remain under consideration for the next round of MLS expansion, as soon as this year.

Meanwhile, Phoenix is likely to join Sacramento as another strong candidate, with a soccer-specific stadium as part of its bid.