Four senior officials from Major League Soccer took a site visit to Cleveland in late July for introductory talks and due diligence for a possible expansion team in the MLS development league with local officials and leaders who are seeking to land both men's and women's professsional soccer franchises for the city.
The "Cleveland Professional Soccer" group will also host site visits from the United Soccer League — men's and women's — and the National Women's Soccer League "in the near term," both of which have also expressed interest in the Cleveland market.
MLS didn't respond to a request for comment but the city confirmed the hourlong meeting at City Hall with Mayor Justin Bibb and provided an itinerary for the rest of the site visit, which involved formal and informal meetings with the founder and president of Gravitas Ventures, David Gilbert of Destination Cleveland, multiple officials from Cleveland State University, Joe Cimperman from Global Cleveland, Baiju Shah of the Greater Cleveland Partnership, members of the Haslam Sports Group (which owns the Columbus Crew and the Crew 2 in the development league), leaders from the Northeast Ohio Women's Sports Alliance, and real estate lawyers and agents.
(Update: MLS in a statement Tuesday afternoon said: "MLS Next Pro had meetings in Cleveland a few weeks ago and are excited about the possibility of bringing a men's soccer team to Cleveland.")
MLS NEXT Pro is a third-tier league that launched this year with 22 teams all with direct MLS team affiliations, except for Rochester New York FC, which is independent. Seven more NEXT Pro teams will be added next year. And the league is looking to add even more in the future.
Michael Murphy of Gravitas Ventures is lead on the group's efforts — the Haslam Sports Group is participating only in support and wouldn't own the teams — and was bubbling with excitement when he talked to Scene.
"We're a film distribution company, and we intentionally moved the company from Hollywood to Cleveland in 2019 because Cleveland is home for us," he said. "The more I looked at this, it's an incredible vehicle for lasting impact for this community from a unification of disparate groups. We have these strong immigrant groups and the common language is soccer. Wouldn't it be amazing to bring professional men's and women's soccer to them and the city?"
Murphy emphasized this is a long-term vision — "These things happen on their own timeline" — but said the prospects for MLS NEXT Pro are "very sound" as the league seeks to expand with more independent teams.
He's even more excited about the possibility of women's professional soccer in Cleveland.
"The women's is Division I. It'd be a coup for Cleveland to get one of these franchises," he said. "We're competing against cities that are more well-versed with soccer and have stadiums."
NWSL is at 12 teams now and will be expanding to 14. Murphy hopes that Cleveland will be competitive in the bids for future expansion after that.
A city official described the MLS talks as preliminary, noting the conversation was centered on the potential to grow the game across the country and Northeast Ohio, and what sort of ecosystem might exist to support that locally.
"Cleveland has a large international population (with anticipated growth)," a city spokesperson told Scene. "[These were] very early stages of conversation about increasing sports options in the city and introductions. The mayor met briefly with the group but did not attend the meetings with the various business leaders."
Cimperman told Scene that for his part, the conversation with the MLS officials was about that large and growing immigrant group in Cleveland.
"They are very interested in what Cleveland has to offer. For me, I have a specific interest with Global Cleveland: How do we get newcomers involved and kids engaged in football," he said. "How do we help create pitches in Cleveland for kids all across the city. It's a really huge factor in the States, and any tool we can use for faster integration is welcome."
Two key points were emphasized in the Cleveland Professional Soccer group's messaging, according to a deck provided to participants (a PDF of which is below): First, that, "Cleveland will support professional soccer. Cleveland is one of the last major markets without professional soccer. We know Cleveland is a great sports town. Cleveland fans show up and this is an opportunity for those existing fans as well as new fans especially from our multi- national immigrant audience that may not feel as connected to MLB, NFL, or NBA. Professional soccer is family-friendly and many like the reasonable 2 hours for a match."
Second is, of course, the facility, which was described as a codependent goal along with bringing soccer to the shores of Lake Erie ("Build a world class multi-use stadium facility that fills a programming gap. Cleveland needs and will use a right-sized outdoor venue and indoor venue," the presentation reads).
The group toured sites for prospective new stadiums and existing ones where a Cleveland team could play, according to the itinerary.
What "right-sized" means in this context isn't clear, nor whether it overlaps with the ongoing conversations about what to do with FirstEnergy stadium (or whether to build a new billion-dollar facility), nor who would pick up the tab on a newly built venue.
But David Gilbert, whose portion of the site visit included providing an overview of the Cleveland sports market to MLS officials, told Scene: "In general, professional soccer in the U.S., for the vast majority, not all, but the vast majority at all levels tend to be played in facilities that sort of match the crowd sizes that make the most sense for that level of soccer, from MLS on down. There's been talk for years and different attempts to look at some purpose-built facility for soccer and that could be all kinds of things. Some of these are 6,000 or 8,000, some are 20,000, some are smaller."
Local officials and those involved who spoke to Scene weren't aware of a timeline for any decisions on a next step.
Currently, Cleveland has two semi-pro or pre-professional teams, the Cleveland Force in the USL League 2 and Cleveland SC in the NPSL.