While Cincinnati and Sacramento (and Detroit, officially) continue to jostle for slot No. 26, Phoenix appears to be making up ground in Major League Soccer’s expansion marathon.
Last month, USL club Phoenix Rising added Chinese hotel billionaire Alex Zheng, an investor in Ligue 1’s OGC Nice, to its ownership group. And then Thursday, Rising unveiled renderings of the 21,000-seat, $250 million stadium it hopes to build northeast of Arizona State University.
“We’re really excited about this stadium. We feel very good about our traction on land. We love the addition of Alex to our cap table, and I think this side of 2018, there’s not a market that’s done more to advance its case to MLS than Phoenix,” Rising co-chairman Brett Johnson said. “We went from not even being in contention to the thick of the conversation.”
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MLS has committed to adding five teams after Los Angeles FC, which took the field this month. Nashville and Miami have been awarded two of those five, while Cincinnati, Detroit and Sacramento are the finalists for No. 26. There is no timetable for the identification of clubs No. 27 or 28.
The most noticeable element of the stadium designed by Populous and Gould Evans is what it doesn’t have—a roof. Phoenix is attractive to MLS because it’s the 12th-largest media market in the country. But it’s also the nations hottest major city, and MLS plays through the summer.
“Nine months of the year, Phoenix arguably has the best weather in the world,” Johnson told SI.com. “We never saw a reason to effectively penalize 3/4 of the year with a dome to satisfy 90 days of very hot weather. Two other points are obviously the cost, and then our confidence that even with an open-air stadium, we’re more than confident we’ll be able to provide comfort based on the current designs. … The lack of humidity makes it much easier to address heat than markets like Houston or Orlando.”
The club said the facility is laid out in order to provide maximum airflow and shade (the field is in shadow at 7 p.m.). There are curtains, canopies, a misting system, fans and even “water walls” at the entrances designed to “cool the wind as it enters the stadium.” In addition, schedules can be front- and back-loaded to minimize the number of home matches in July and August.
Construction will be privately financed.
Johnson said the architects and club remained in contact with MLS throughout the process and that the design meets with league approval. MLS also appears to be O.K. with the proposed site even though it’s about 10 miles east of downtown, and Johnson said the league retained its own consultant to review it. Speaking to SI.com last year, Rising owner Berke Bakay said the area’s proximity to two highways, ASU and Scottsdale makes it ideal, and that it was identified as a potential site by MLS when it first looked at the Valley of the Sun more than a dozen years ago.
“If you asked a random 1,000 people where would be the best place to put a stadium, and gave them a multiple choice section, I don’t see how this doesn’t dominate it. It’s not debatable,” Bakay said.
Rising doesn’t yet have full site control. The land where its USL stadium now sits is owned by the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and the Solanna Group, who are local developers. That adds “a lot of complexity,” Johnson acknowledged.
“We don’t have definitive shovel-in-the-ground [readiness] in the current location. We don’t have it relative to MLS, and we don’t have it relative to the tribe,” he added. “We’re keeping our options open relative to other pieces of land that might also be available. We don’t have the luxury of going all-in and we don’t have the luxury of not considering other locations.”
But the stadium was designed with the SRPMIC site in mind, and Johnson said, “We are highly confident that we’re going to have shovel-ready land that’s going to satisfy MLS. That’s something we go to sleep at night and we feel good about. … We’re going to have title certainty in the next 90 days.”
Zheng has a home in Phoenix and has committed to owning at least 30% of a potential MLS club. It could wind up being more.
“He’s on the board. He’s very active, and we’re very comfortable with him being the ‘whale.’ But no final decision has been made on that front,” Johnson said. “We intend on continuing to expand our cap table so that it has additional gravitas beyond Alex. He reached out to us. He pursued us. We think that speaks volumes about what we’ve built in a short period of time.”
If given the green light this year, Rising could have the stadium ready for the 2021 season.
“We could move quickly on this. We’re confident in that,” Johnson said. At the same time, he added, Rising “is in this for the long haul. There’s no expiration on our MLS bid.”
Phoenix kicks off its USL season—which will be Didier Drogba’s last as a player—on Saturday evening at Orange County SC. Rising’s home opener, on what could be the site of its future MLS home, is March 24 against OKC Energy.