Ford Field pitch stirs debate on MLS expansion

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
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Detroit — The local bid for a Major League Soccer franchise will test whether the league re-embraces playing in NFL stadiums, MLS Commissioner Don Garber said Friday.

Responding to a question after his annual “State of the League Address,” Garber said the successful launch of the Atlanta United FC in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the home of the Falcons may affect the bid by businessmen Dan Gilbert, Tom Gores, the owner of the Pistons and Martha Firestone Ford, the owner of the Lions, to place an MLS franchise in Ford Field.

MLS has emphasized playing in smaller, soccer-specific stadiums in downtown areas. While Ford Field fills only one of those three criteria, Garber seemed upbeat in his assessment of the Detroit bid.

But will Ford Field not being a small soccer-specific stadium halt MLS expansion in Detroit?

“You know, that question is going to get answered as we debate Detroit’s bid, which was very strong,” Garber said.

“They had a very creative way of downsizing Ford Field.”

More: Detroit makes 'best pitch' for MLS expansion team

Atlanta set an MLS attendance record of about 48,200 fans per game, he said.

“The success of this team showed us there is really no limit to what Major League Soccer and the sport can do in the United States and Canada,” Garber said.

But, he added a consideration that sounds discouraging to fans who want to see MLS in Detroit.

“Stadium development continues to be a big priority,” he said. “Our 16th soccer stadium debuted this year in Orlando, selling out every single game. We’ll open up two new soccer stadiums next year,” in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

Detroit is in the running with Cincinnati, Nashville and Sacramento for two expansion franchises to be awarded this year. If it does not receive one, the bid will remain in the competition for two more franchises to be awarded in 2019.

“Atlanta surprised us, frankly,” Garber said. “I don’t think it takes us away from this idea that we want small, filled-to-capacity soccer stadiums in urban environments.

“But is the key to that urban and downtown, or is the key to that soccer stadium?

“It’s something we’re going to have to figure out moving forward.”

Garber said that the expansion team awarded already to Miami has been about the most difficult to fulfill in the history of MLS, but he expressed confidence stadium and ownership issues will eventually be solved.

Asked, nonetheless, if there was any possibility that one of the two bids awarded this year could eventually move up and take Miami’s place, essentially creating a fifth expansion possibility in 2017 and 2018, Garber said, “It’s conceivable.”

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