Cleveland nabs MLS Next Pro team, eyes NWSL
Cleveland will be home to an MLS Next Pro team beginning in 2025, and the club’s owners hope an NWSL team isn’t far behind. The yet-to-be-named club is the third independent entrant into Next Pro following Rochester New York FC (active) and Carolina Core FC (enters in 2024). The bulk of the league, which will include 28 teams in 2023, is made up of MLS clubs’ developmental teams. Next Pro President Charles Altchek has said the league hopes to include 10-20 independent teams by the 2026 World Cup.
The Cleveland Soccer Group ownership team consists of film distributor Gravitas Ventures founder & CEO Nolan Gallagher and the company’s former president Michael Murphy, who has transitioned to working on soccer full-time. In addition to the Next Pro team, the group also aims to bring a professional women’s soccer team to Cleveland. Murphy said the group applied for the latest round of NWSL expansion as that league prepares to expand from 12 to 14 teams for the 2024 season. NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman said ahead of the Nov. 4 application deadline that the league expected 5-10 serious bids. It is believed that one of the two available expansion slots is earmarked for the owners of Real Salt Lake, who have an option to acquire an expansion team at a predetermined price. “We’ve been working with the league over the last few months and recently heard that we’re still in it,” Murphy said of Cleveland’s chances.
The biggest obstacle for Cleveland’s NWSL bid would appear to be the lack of certainty about where a team would play. The same question extends to its Next Pro team. Murphy said the group is considering multiple sites for a soccer-specific stadium that could house both teams and that he believes it can be ready for the Next Pro team’s debut in 2025. He said the group is "open to looking at all types of financing options” for such a project. Even if Cleveland isn’t selected in the current round of NWSL expansion, it’s unlikely the league will stay at 14 teams for too long before expanding further.