Business duo looks to establish a vibrant soccer ecosystem in Cleveland

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Cleveland Soccer Group makes progress on stadium plan, eyes 2026 NWSL bid

This article was published by Crains Cleveland.

Joe Scalzo | July 20th 2023 5:45 AM

If Cleveland is going to successfully pitch for women’s soccer, it needs a soccer pitch.

The Cleveland Soccer Group (CSG) is getting closer to that goal.

Michael Murphy, the co-founder and CEO of the CSG, said his group has made “significant progress” on its stadium plan, a crucial element in its bid to land a National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) team in 2026. 

The CSG also is expanding its ownership group, something Murphy believes will be “well-received” by the league.

“We are now focused on what we think is a very exciting stadium plan,” said Murphy, who co-founded the CSG with his business partner, Nolan Gallagher. “We look forward to sharing that progress and our vision with the NWSL expansion committee at the appropriate time.”

The stadium would also serve as the home of the city’s MLS Next Pro team, which will begin play in 2025. While Murphy wouldn’t release details about the stadium plan, he did say his group is hoping to build it downtown.

“Our belief has always been that a downtown location provides the ideal backdrop for a stadium and the environment that we’re trying to create for our teams, fans and the city as a whole,” he said.

As for the NWSL, Cleveland was one of four groups that presented at the league’s owners meetings last November in hopes of joining the NWSL as an expansion team in 2024. But Cleveland was the first group eliminated, with the league citing concerns over its stadium situation, Murphy said.

The NWSL ultimately chose San Francisco as its 14th team, edging bids from Tampa and Boston. (Utah had previously been selected as the 13th team.) The Bay Area group paid a record $53 million expansion fee.

The league plans to add two more teams in 2026, and Boston already has a deal in place to land one of those spots, according to the Wall Street Journal. Boston’s expansion fee also will top $50 million, the WSJ reported.

The NWSL will begin the 2026 expansion process later this year.

“The league received a tremendous response to their last round of expansion — with more than 80 markets inquiring — and we imagine similar, if not greater, excitement will be part of this round,” Murphy said. “There certainly are other attractive markets, but we are focused on positioning Cleveland to be the most attractive expansion market when the next round kicks off.”

Cleveland is the only top-20 U.S. market without Tier I or II professional soccer. MLS Next Pro is considered a third-tier league in the U.S., behind MLS (Tier One) and the United Soccer League Championship (Tier Two). 

If selected, Cleveland would be the largest NWSL market without an MLS team.

“We don’t think there are any questions that Cleveland will be a tremendous market for NWSL and represents a significant opportunity for American soccer,” Murphy said.