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How MLS (and the Raleigh community) will decide whether the Triangle deserves a top-tier soccer team

Billy Schuller , left, of North Carolina F.C. looks for a pass against pressure from Eric Bird of Houston Dynamo in June.
Billy Schuller , left, of North Carolina F.C. looks for a pass against pressure from Eric Bird of Houston Dynamo in June. newsobserver.com

Major League Soccer president and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott outlined the MLS’ process for determining where to expand during his visit to the Triangle Wednesday, and Raleigh may know whether it is getting a team in a matter of months.

Abbott is visiting all 12 markets vying for one of the four expansion slots in the league and evaluating them based on their ownership, stadium plans and potential for fan, corporate and media support.

The MLS will have a board meeting in New York Dec. 13-14 and decide on the first two cities where it will start franchises by the end of the year, with the next two expansion decisions coming at a later date. The first two new franchises would start play in 2020.

The league has now visited 11 of the 12 bid cities — it was in Charlotte a day before its trip to Raleigh — and will invite some of the bids to make final presentations in New York before the board meeting.

For better or for worse, a process that has been years in the making for some on the local soccer scene will soon come to a close.

“We know what a winning bid looks like,” North Carolina F.C. president and general manager Curt Johnson said. “We’ve proven over 30 years in the Triangle that this is a strong soccer marketplace.”

Few people are more familiar with the local soccer scene than Johnson, who grew up playing for the Capital Area Soccer League in Raleigh and at Ravenscroft School in the 1980s before staying close to home and captaining N.C. State to a Final Four appearance in 1990.

North Carolina F.C. has had a motivated owner since tech entrepreneur Stephen Malik bought the team last year, and it now has plans for a stadium. Johnson thinks the Triangle can also satisfy the MLS’ final main expansion criterion of community support.

“When I was in college, we certainly had a pocket of people that were soccer-savvy in terms of coming to our games,” Johnson said. “Now, you walk through a college campus... You’re going to meet people that have connections to soccer.”

Abbott cited the elite soccer programs at the state’s major colleges as an enticing factor that has generated interest in the sport, making a team at the highest level seem possible, and Johnson said ticket sales have doubled since North Carolina F.C. rebranded and launched its MLS bid last December.

“In the 80s, with youth soccer, kind of that first generation of player knowing the game, understanding the game, that’s where we really started to see traction in the sport,” Johnson said. “We’re kind of the first generation of people that grew up with the game. It’s natural that when you grow up playing the game, if it’s on television and it’s played in purpose-built stadiums, you’re going to go watch.”

Three of North Carolina F.C.’s current players were in the audience at Wednesday’s press conference, including Austin Da Luz, a veteran defender who has played with the club since 2012 following a successful college career at Wake Forest.

Since arriving in North Carolina for college more than a decade ago, Da Luz thinks it has proven itself as a viable destination for the MLS.

“It’s a soccer state, and this is something that I think would just push us over the edge,” Da Luz said. “People want to see it, and I’m confident that the community will do their part to make it happen.”

And the community will have a large part to play, with a $150-million stadium on state government land likely to require some public funding.

Malik attempted to preempt some of those concerns at the press conference by summarizing the positive economic impact it would have on the region: nearly 2,000 new jobs in Wake County and downtown Raleigh and $262 million a year in economic activity, according to an economic consulting firm.

Aside from the economic impact, Malik pitched the idea as a way to boost Raleigh’s brand.

“I think the value goes beyond money,” Malik said. “(The MLS is) in 170 countries around the world on TV. What does that mean to us as we strive to get more tourism and to the brand of Raleigh. What does it mean to us when we’re trying to attract even more millennials and growth, and we can offer them the sport that is nearest and dearest to their heart.”

After a short time to make an impression, just one day, Malik will need that pitch to resonate with both the MLS and his own community to make a top-level team a reality.