Coronavirus forces MLS to delay debuts of 3 expansion teams

Soccer officials said the pandemic had delayed the start "of business operations and stadium development of these clubs."

Major League Soccer will delay the debut of three of its planned expansion teams due to interruptions related to the coronavirus pandemic, the league announced Friday.

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Billionaire hedge fund magnate David Tepper’s Charlotte-based expansion team will begin playing in 2022, rather than next year as originally planned. Sacramento Republic FC and the unnamed St. Louis-based MLS franchise will debut in 2023 instead of 2022.

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MLS said the delays were “the result of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the commencement of business operations and stadium development of these clubs.” All three teams were originally announced in late 2019.

“We have always taken a thoughtful and strategic approach to our expansion planning and have delivered successful launches for every new club,” said MLS Commissioner Don Garber. “It is important for each club to take the necessary time to launch their inaugural MLS seasons the way their fans and communities deserve. With the extra year to make up for what has been a challenging 2020, these teams will be well-positioned for their debuts and for long-term success.”

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Another MLS expansion team, Austin FC, will begin to play in 2021 as scheduled. The league said Austin FC had already made significant progress toward its debut prior to the pandemic.

MLS has expanded rapidly in recent years in a bid to build up its national footprint ahead of the next round of media rights negotiations and capitalize on growing fan interest in the sport.

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The St. Louis and Sacramento ownership groups each agreed to pay a $200 million expansion fee to join MLS. Tepper paid a record $325 million expansion fee for the Charlotte franchise. He also owns the NFL's Carolina Panthers.

Play resumed with the “MLS is Back Tournament” earlier this month after a lengthy pause in action during the pandemic. Games are being held without fans in attendance at Walt Disney World resort in Orlando.

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