MLS leaves Las Vegas at altar

Major League Soccer will have San Diego as its 30th franchise with Las Vegas once again on the outside looking in.

LAS VEGAS — As the old advertising saying goes, “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.”

It seems that tag fits Las Vegas when it comes to Major League Soccer.

The last coupe of years, we were led to believe that MLS was Vegas-bound, sure to join the NFL, NHL and WNBA as part of our sports scene. Investors appeared to be secured. Stadium projects were being bandied about. The large soccer-loving community was getting excited. There was even a nickname: “Las Vegas Villains” that was trademarked. 

Then commissioner Don Garber pulled the rug out from underneath our collective feet.

The league plans to announce Thursday that San Diego will be its 30th team, beginning play in 2025. International business entrepreneur Mohamed Mansour has partnered with the Sycuan Native American Tribe to spend $500 million to join MLS and the team will play at 35,000-seat Snapdragon Stadium, which opened its doors last fall.

This makes sense on several levels. First, San Diego has a rich soccer tradition. The Sockers of the old North American Soccer League were popular in the 1980s and the indoor version of the Sockers were also well-backed. Who could forget “The double-deuce, the triple-E, the one, the only Julie Veee?”

The city also currently has a National Women’s Soccer League team — the San Diego Wave — and having a NWSL team in the market helps whet the appetite for the sport’s fans in the community.

Second, having a San Diego franchise creates natural rivalries with Los Angeles’ two MLS entities — the Galaxy and LAFC. San Diego will become the fourth MLS team in California, joining the two LA teams and the San Jose Earthquakes.

Third, Mansur’s deep pockets and his reported love of the sport should give the San Diego franchise a fighting chance to succeed provided he hires the right people to run it. He’s paying a record half a billion to join MLS so he better get his money’s worth.

Fourth, how can you beat the weather? It’s San Diego. 

Finally, having a ready-to-go facility may be the most important part of the decision. Las Vegas doesn’t have a soccer-specific stadium and while competitions have been held at Allegiant Stadium, it’s simply too big a venue for MLS and the field isn’t wide enough to play the game the right way. 

There are no such issues at Snapdragon Stadium, where the capacity and dimensions are ideal for MLS, the natural grass field is desirable and the location, which is adjacent to the site of the old Jack Murphy Stadium and makes it easy to get to for those who live in the market. The trolley runs right to the stadium, giving it a nice public transit element.

On paper, this should be a tap-in goal for MLS, which thought it was going to place a team in Sacramento only to see the investment group led by former Pittsburgh Penguins owner Ron Burkle pull out and no stadium ready to be built for the team to play there.

The decision by MLS to bypass Las Vegas comes at a time when Major League Baseball is preparing to plant its flag on the Strip with the woeful Oakland Athletics and where the NBA is keeping a close eye on the city as a potential landing spot should it decide to expand.

Is it a little strange? Yes and no. Yes because we were led to believe by Garber that Las Vegas was going to be in the MLS fold and that an ownership group, led by Milwaukee Bucks owner Wes Edens was ready to pony up the necessary expansion fee and build a soccer-specific stadium, perhaps downtown, which is what Mayor Carolyn Goodman had been promoting and wishing for over the years.

Instead, Garber would delay his decisions, seemingly buying time to wait for San Diego to get its bid together. Or maybe he got cold feet and believed Las Vegas wasn’t really ready to support MLS.

For me, the biggest issue was the lack of a proper soccer facility for a Vegas MLS team to play in. One of the reasons Golden Knights owner Bill Foley decided not to get involved in bringing MLS to town was the lack of a place to play. Foley wasn’t prepared to spend what would have been a couple of billion to join the league and build a stadium with a retractable roof so the team could survive the triple-digit temperatures in the summer. Instead, Foley bought full ownership of an English Premier League team — AFC Bournemouth — and a team in France, FC Lorient, in which he has a minority stake.  

There’s a good chance MLS will grow from 30 teams in 2025 to 32 at some point. Maybe a Las Vegas team plays at the proposed A’s 30,000-seat stadium at the Tropicana Hotel-Casino site. It wouldn’t be ideal from MLS’ perspective but it currently has a team — NYCFC — which plays in a baseball stadium (Yankee Stadium). But that team is exploring and looking to build its own home out in Queens next to Citi Field where the Mets play. So playing soccer in a baseball stadium is really a temporary solution. I’m guessing MLS will insist that any Las Vegas franchise have its own soccer-specific facility.

It doesn’t appear that Edens will be a likely investor in a Las Vegas soccer franchise. He may be focusing more on the Brightline high-speed rail project which would link Las Vegas to Southern California that appears to be moving forward. 

Would public money be spent to provide such a project as a Vegas MLS stadium? Would soccer be more palatable for the legislature than baseball when it comes to assistance? 

I guess we’ll have to wait and see. And like a bridesmaid, we’ll have to settle for continuing to dream and hope for that big day when Las Vegas and MLS say “I do” and hopefully live happily ever after.

Meanwhile, enjoy your honeymoon with MLS San Diego. I hope your marriage goes well.