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NCFC steps up its game for MLS visit

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The Major League Soccer 2017 expansion tour hit Raleigh on Wednesday with officials from the North Carolina Football Club releasing eye-popping architectural renderings of a proposed lavish downtown stadium.

The NCFC used Wednesday’s visit by MLS President and Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott at a press conference to announce the preferred stadium location within the boundaries of Peace, Lane and Salisbury streets. The club, which owns a professional men’s team in the NASL and the NC Courage women’s pro team, is asking the state government “to enter into a dialogue to facilitate a public-private partnership to build a mixed-use community featuring an entertainment, sports and athletics venue that would be home to a Major League Soccer (MLS) team.”

The proposed 13-acre area would include office, conference, hospitality and retail space.

“This is another important step in our pursuit of a Major League Soccer Franchise,” said North Carolina Football Club owner Steve Malik. “Our vision is to make this facility a crown jewel for downtown Raleigh, providing a world-class sporting and social experience for fans and the community. We are ready to engage all of the relevant constituents, including our community members, legislators, city, county and state officials, to address questions and concerns and bring this vision to life.”

North Carolina Football Club owner Steve Malik, leading the Triangle’s bid for a team, unveiled plans for a downtown Raleigh stadium and entertainment complex at a news conference before a rally led by the Oak City Supporters. The effort even has a hashtag: #919TOMLS .

“This is the beginning of a journey. We need to get there pretty quickly if we want to take advantage of the catalyst of an MLS franchise and I believe we can do that,” Malik said at a news conference Wednesday.

Abbott visited Charlotte on Tuesday and Raleigh-Durham on Wednesday.

Nashville appeared to make a strong case recently when league Commissioner Don Garber visited the city in conjunction with the U.S. national team's Gold Cup opener against Panama.

The turnout caught Garber's eye. The July 8 game drew 42,622 fans to Nissan Stadium. A U.S. women's national team SheBelieves Cup match against France last year drew more than 25,000 fans.

“If you don't have success with friendlies or international competition, you're not going to have success in MLS,” Garber told reporters during the visit. “So that's a checked box that we've actually checked a while ago.”

The Nashville bid is led by billionaire businessmen John Ingram. The one thing missing is a solid stadium plan, which MLS requires for an expansion franchise.

Twelve locations are competing for MLS expansion franchises. Two winning bids are expected to be announced later this year, bringing the league to 26 teams, with two additional teams to be added in the future.

MLS expanded to 22 teams this season with the addition of Atlanta United FC and Minnesota United FC. LAFC, which replaces the now-defunct Chivas USA, joins next year. Miami's expansion effort, led by David Beckham, would bring the league to 24.

In addition to Nashville and the two North Carolina bids, the other areas that are vying for an expansion team include: Cincinnati, Detroit, San Antonio, Sacramento, San Diego, St. Louis, Tampa/St. Petersburg, Indianapolis and Phoenix.

Sacramento's bid looks to be among the strongest, with the USL's Sacramento Republic FC drawing very well and detailed plans for a stadium in place. Phoenix has also emerged as a front-runner with a bid that includes private financing for a stadium and an established star — Didier Drogba — joining the campaign. Tampa Bay won approval in April to expand and upgrade Al Lang Stadium, home of the USL's Tampa Bay Rowdies.

GAME OF THE WEEK

Looking forward to the weekend, the Cascadia Cup rivalry continues on Sunday when the Portland Timbers visit BC Place and the Vancouver Whitecaps.

The rivalry between the two teams actually dates back to 1975, when both were part of the North America Soccer League, but the Cascadia Cup was created by fans in 2004 as a three-way competition with the Seattle Sounders. Based on points, the Sounders and Timbers are tied atop the table so far this season.

BEST OF THE REST

Two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, Chicago and NYCFC, meet on Saturday at Yankee Stadium. The match will showcase two of the league's top players, New York's David Villa and the Fire's Nikolic Nemanja, who leads the league with 16 goals this season.

The Fire are unbeaten in their last 11 matches, going 8-0-3 over the span.

EUROPEAN INVASION

The annual International Champions Cup was set to open stateside on Wednesday night with Roma against Paris Saint-Germain in Detroit. It is Comerica Park's first soccer match.

The annual multi-city competition serves two purposes: It helps European club teams prepare for their seasons — think baseball's spring training — while also attracting fans that don't normally have access to matches. The United States hosts the most games, although the ICC also includes games in China and Singapore this year.

In addition to Roma and PSG, the other teams playing in the United States are Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Barcelona, Juventus and Real Madrid. And yes, Lionel Messi and Neymar are on Barcelona's roster for the ICC, but it's uncertain if or how much they'll play.

Real Madrid and star Cristiano Ronaldo will face the MLS All-Star team on Aug. 2 at Chicago's Soldier Field.

The ICC is in its fifth year.

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