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Everything seems to be breaking San Diego’s way in MLS expansion sweepstakes

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Chargers leaving, Sacramento drama appears to help prospects.

A new rendering of a proposed San Diego MLS stadium.
SoccerCity SD

San Diego’s MLS bid application was submitted directly to MLS Commissioner Don Garber on Monday, in a press conference and rally at the Midway to bring attention to the prospective expansion project.

San Diego was just one of 12 cities to submit an expansion bid, for what is four open MLS expansion slots, so the competition is fierce. Two-thirds of applicants presumably won’t get in.

But San Diego’s prospects appear to have gotten a major shot in the arm in the past several weeks, aided by two external developments:

Chargers bolt to LA:

The biggest domino to fall was the NFL’s Chargers announcing they would leave San Diego to move to Los Angeles...ish, signing a two-year deal to play at the LA Galaxy’s home stadium, StubHub Center. While surely there are fans somewhere excited by this development, the overall sentiment appears to be scorn and ridicule. In San Diego, fans are rightfully furious that the Chargers want to be the second team to relocate to Los Angeles in a year, and that they’ll play in by far the smallest venue in the NFL, a previously soccer-specific stadium. That they would rather give up a city of their own to chase some unicorn in LA, with nearly a dozen major sports teams to compete with, to say nothing of the NFL vacuum producing a generation of Angelinos who are either not fans of the NFL or root for other teams, means LA seems set to generally shrug in the Chargers’ direction. Who knows how it will turn out, but it doesn’t seem like a slam dunk for the Chargers, really.

But Commissioner Garber has been pretty up front in admitting that markets where major league teams depart becomes far more attractive to MLS. The departure of the NBA’s Sonics in Seattle helped the Seattle Sounders become an unprecedented phenomenon in MLS, and St. Louis and San Diego have both moved up the MLS expansion power rankings by virtue of having solid soccer markets, of course, but also by their local NFL teams bolting for Los Angeles. And that prospect could help San Diego reach the final four and get a coveted expansion slot in the end.

Sacramento drama:

The other development that appears, at least from the outside, to have boosted San Diego’s prospects is the remarkable drama unfolding in Sacramento this week. First, consider that California, while the most populous state and top to bottom a pretty soccer-crazy place, already has three MLS teams (including Los Angeles Football Club, set to join the league next year).

He’s most likely right. If MLS goes up to infinity teams, then yes, California could probably have six or seven teams, easily. But with four slots, it seems highly unlikely they would grant two of them to California teams.

So if Sacramento and San Diego each have top four-worthy bids, then the best one probably wins, the second best is probably frozen out altogether. And Sacramento’s weirdness this week, where the man spearheading the MLS bid appears to have cut out the team believed to be vital to the expansion prospects, USL side Sacramento Republic, from the expansion bid altogether, means Sacramento may be on shaky ground. Republic released an odd statement that required a few logical leaps to fully believe in response, and MLS and Sacramento’s Mayor(!) each weighed in on Wednesday to help explain why on earth this might have happened.

In the end, it appears there’s a chance the Sacramento bid may proceed with Republic coming into the fold, and there’s a chance that a Sacramento MLS team would have an entirely new identity and push Republic to obscurity after they carried much of the water locally for years to drum up support for an MLS team in the area.

If that drama is even remotely concerning to MLS, they may just opt to skip Sacramento and turn toward San Diego. In this case, SD having no existing team may be a boon, as feelings and handshake deals and whatnot won’t be on the line, and a fresh start in a city where no fully professional outdoor team exists could be more attractive than figuring out whether an already successful team should be involved or not.

Of course, some Sacramento drama may turn out to be a tempest in a teapot. The public optics may be far different than what the actual decisionmakers, MLS and MLS owners, will use as criteria in selecting the next four expansion cities. Aside from owners rich enough to start a team and successfully maintain it, stadium deals are probably the next most important factor, and Sacramento’s signed-off situation is further down the road than San Diego’s, which is seeking to effectively fast-track approval at this point, a considerable risk that may or may not pay off.

But if there’s a toe in the door to MLS expansion for San Diego now, the developments of the last month may have boosted San Diego’s chances from a “Eh, maybe” applicant to a “This could really happen” situation. Stay tuned, of course, but the door may open wider yet for San Diego’s expansion bid.

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