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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber said Tuesday that St. Louis will be a top contender for the next round of expansion, probably in 2020, if the city's stadium plans for a new NFL stadium are fulfilled.
"It's too early to handicap it all," Garber said. "Today was all about fact-finding. We've always loved the St. Louis market. "
MLS is set to add Atlanta, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Miami as it expands to 24 teams by the end of the decade. Garber said he anticipates no franchise moves at this time but didn't put a cap on future expansion, and anticipated the league would come up with a plan in the next year.
He said this year the league has average attendance of more than 20,000. The strategic plan is to build a national fan base.
"I think there's a lot of interest in MLS in the U.S. and Canada and we're going to play it out carefully," Garber said. "But it's hard to imagine MLS won't be a bigger league in the years to come.
"We're riding that wave."
Garber met with Gov. Jay Nixon, mayor Francis Slay and leaders of the task force seeking to build a new $985 million stadium downtown that would ensure a continued NFL presence. He also spoke at a fan forum at Cardinal Nation just outside Busch Stadium, telling them "We'd love to be here."
From the outset, the plan has called for a stadium that could also be used for soccer.
St. Louis needs a new stadium to keep the NFL. The Rams can leave after next season because of a clause in the league that calls for the facility be among the top quarter in the league. The Edward Jones Dome opened in 1995.
Rams owner Stan Kroenke has announced plans for a $1.8 billion stadium in suburban Los Angeles
Stadium approval is a must for the MLS to consider St. Louis. Garber said "part of the reason, if not the reason" St. Louis doesn't already have a team is because it lacked a stadium plan "that made sense" and committed ownership.
"Frankly, I'm not worried about getting an ownership group if we can get a stadium," Garber said at the fan forum. "I wouldn't have said that two years ago."
Expansion fees have skyrocketed in recent years.
MLS launched with 12 teams in 1996 and cut to 10 in 2002. There are 20 this year following the additions of New York City and Orlando.
Garber said details haven't been ironed out for the David Beckham-owned Miami expansion franchise.
Among other cities that have expressed interest are Austin, Texas; Sacramento, California; St. Louis; and San Antonio; and to a lesser extent El Paso, Texas; Indianapolis; and Las Vegas.
St. Louis has a lower-tier team, Saint Louis FC, that draws near capacity at the 5,000-seat Soccer Park.