By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Jan 11, 2019) US Soccer Players - The list of leading candidates for the next MLS expansion franchise might need another adjustment. On Thursday, USL club Indy Eleven relaunched stadium talk in that city with an audacious plan that includes a 20,000-seat soccer venue. The proposed $550 project will include business and residential components in addition to the soccer stadium. Indy Eleven ownership already lined up partners on the project, the better to spread out the costs and benefits and to make it more attractive to local leaders.
As is always the case with stadium plans on that scope, a bid for MLS is central to bringing it to fruition. Although Indy Eleven has expressed a desire to move up to MLS in the past, the cold truth is that financial viability at in the lower divisions is extremely difficult. Chasing the MLS expansion dream is as much about recouping prior investment and ensuring a future for the club as it is about the ambition to play in the top division.
Indy Eleven's owner is Ersal Ozdemir, a local construction magnate. Ozdemir launched the club for the 2014 NASL season. It followed a grassroots push for a professional team in Indiana and responding to the 2020 US World Cup bid committee rejection of Indianapolis as a host city. At the time, there was only speculative mention of an MLS expansion bid.
For all appearances, Indy Eleven looked like a new American soccer club content to occupy the second rung of the national ladder for a time, building below MLS. Ozdemir gave no outward indication that his investment was contingent on MLS, or that there was a rush to go to the top league. That fit perfectly with the NASL’s stated intention to grow and potentially challenge MLS down the road.
Ozdemir chose to be aggressive in other ways. In 2014, before a team was even on the field, he made a move to build a soccer home for his new club by pitching a $100 million project to the Indiana legislature. Ozdemir wanted the state to chip in through a facility fee on ticket sales, shifting some of the burdens of the construction cost to taxpayers. The idea didn't receive enough support, and the plan died.
A year later Ozdemir returned with another plan, this time backed up by the rousing success of the team in the stands. Indy Eleven averaged five-figures in 2014, proving that there was a strong appetite for the professional game in the city. The idea of tossing Indianapolis’s hat in the ring for an MLS expansion slot was still as yet unstated.
The second plan passed the Indiana House but fell at the Senate hurdle. Ozdemir scrambled to help prop up the NASL for the 2017 season, while Indy’s attendance took a hit. The club was still doing fine by the usual standards of lower division soccer in the United States but Cincinnati’s massive crowds changed that standard.
Meanwhile, the MLS expansion race was heating up. The league was actively courting bids from various cities. Ozdemir made public his desire to enter the league. He joined a group of 11 other bidders for one of two MLS expansion spots. MLS eventually awarded a spot to Nashville and one to Cincinnati, with Indianapolis missing out on being a finalist for the last spot. There’s no doubt that the lack of a clear path to an appropriate stadium played a significant role in the bid’s failure.
When the NASL eventually going on hiatus, Indy Eleven left for the USL. In 2017, Ozdemir spoke about his investment in Indy Eleven, pegging the total at $20 million, and the possibility that the team could fold. It speaks volumes about the business of second division soccer and the carrot of MLS that Indy Eleven is more likely to survive if Ozdemir and his partners invest $350 million than if the club remains a USL operation.
Without a stadium, Indy Eleven will have issues succeeding as a business. Without MLS as a goal, any stadium plan is likely to hit barriers be it on the local or state level. The bar for entry into MLS is already high and rising, a problem for Ozdemir and Indianapolis. Can Indy Eleven outdo cities like St. Louis, Phoenix, Sacramento, Detroit, and whoever else and grab an expansion slot? The degree of difficulty for Indianapolis is extremely high.
Here’s the troubling thought that comes with any club pushing for MLS. What happens if the league goes in a different direction? What's the future for a club in a system where the only means of promotion is economic?
It’s a brutal commentary on professional soccer in America if second division clubs can only survive, only act ambitious, if MLS expansion is in play. Give MLS credit for creating an in-demand franchised product and reaching a level of success that makes the attractive beyond traditional soccer quarters. That’s still a remarkable feat in this country with the history of the game fully considered.
Still, hat hope is there of professional soccer existing and thriving in cities outside of Major League Soccer’s chosen 28 (or 30, or 32) when the league shuts down the expansion process. Further, because MLS had a hand in creating an environment where lower division soccer will never be good enough, even for a second tier of American cities, does the league have a responsibility to keep open the expansion process?
Stadium renderings rarely underwhelm. Indy Eleven’s plans for “Eleven Park” meet all the requirements for exhilarating possibilities, the kind of thing American soccer excels with. The game in the United States is nothing if not a mountain of potential. That potential often comes balanced against a sobering reality. Today, it’s this. Indy Eleven wants to build a stadium and join MLS. What happens if the stadium doesn’t get built and/or MLS says no?
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Logo courtesy of Indy Eleven