Although the eyes of the sports world are and will continue to be on Qatar for the next month for the World Cup, the attention shifted away from the tournament for a moment in time on Monday afternoon. In the hour prior to the scheduled 2 pm ET kickoff of the USMNT‘s group stage contest versus Wales, Cleveland, OH made headlines of its own.
During a press conference/ watch party at Pinstripes Mechanical Bowling in Cleveland, emceed by Bally Sports Great Lakes reporter/ anchor Ashley Collins, it was officially revealed that the North Coast would become an expansion city of MLS’ developmental league, MLS Next Pro. The league, which just capped its freshman season last month, is targeted to expand to Northeast Ohio for the 2025 season.
Monday’s news of the expansion comes 17 months to the day after MLS Next Pro was officially founded. An Ohio team has already captured gold in MLS Next Pro. On the afternoon of Oct. 8, Lower.com Field in Columbus played host to the 2022 MLS Next Pro Cup Final, won 4-1 by Columbus Crew 2 over St. Louis City 2.
MLS Next Pro Cleveland Expansion Specifics
When the Cleveland side joins MLS Next Pro for its 2025 season, it will be the third team based out of the Buckeye State to play its matches in the league. Columbus Crew 2 and FC Cincinnati 2 were charter members of the league this past season.
Additionally, Cleveland’s team will become the third squad in MLS Next Pro to be independent of any affiliation from a parent MLS club. During the inaugural season, one charter member, Rochester New York FC (formerly the Rochester Rhinos), played as an independent team.
Other details, such as the club’s official moniker, team colors, and home match grounds, are to be disclosed at a later date.
Former Toronto FC Defender Morrow Part of Expansion Bid
This expansion effort was spearheaded by several Clevelanders, including one with ties to Major League Soccer. Retired full back/defender Justin Morrow, who played in MLS for seven seasons with Toronto FC, graduated from St. Ignatius High School before playing college soccer at The University of Notre Dame.
As his soccer career was winding down, Morrow turned his attention to activism. Since the restart of the 2020 MLS season during the COVID-19 pandemic, he has served as Executive Director for Black Players for Change.
Justin Morrow’s Comments on MLS Next Pro in Cleveland
Ahead of Monday’s reveal, dignitaries close to the expansion effort in Northeastern Ohio, including Justin Morrow, offered up their thoughts on this news through a press release.
“Like most Clevelanders, my affinity to the city runs deep, and I’m committed to partnering with leaders like Michael (Murphy) and Nolan (Gallagher) to have a positive impact,” Morrow said. “I know that if we bring professional soccer to Cleveland with a ‘community-first’ mindset, it will bring about many positive changes to Cleveland.”
Justin Morrow is a man who knows the sport and a man who knows the community of Cleveland like he knows the back of his hand. He’s played for both club and country and has served as an advocate for his fellow players over the past couple of years.
With Morrow serving on the he will be a great ambassador to the club.
Michael Murphy Eager to Get Started
Cleveland Soccer Group, which spearheaded the MLS Next Pro effort, was co-founded by Michael Murphy and Nolan Gallagher.
This isn’t the first time that Murphy and Gallagher have worked together, as the latter is the CEO and founder of the Gravitas Ventures independent movie studio, with the former as its president. Prior to Monday’s press conference, Murphy spoke to Cleveland Scene Magazine about the city’s bid,
“We’re super excited,” Murphy said. “It’s a huge step to get MLS Next Pro here. Cleveland’s going to have professional outdoor men’s soccer. We’re going to compete. We’re going to put butts in seats. We have a brand in Cleveland that travels around. Fans are going to be excited.”
Although Murphy was considering an effort to bring a United Soccer League expansion team to Northeast Ohio, MLS Next Pro won out in the end.
“I went to their midsummer meetings down in Louisville,” he said of the USL. “It’s a great product. Men’s and women’s teams under a common ownership is a concept that I hope to bring here.”
Apple TV+ Deal A Major Selling Point for MLS Next Pro in Cleveland
Back in June, MLS signed an exclusive worldwide streaming deal to bring all of its matches for the next 10 seasons to Apple TV+ through its MLS Season Pass streaming service. It was announced last week that the streamer would launch on Feb. 1 ahead of the Feb. 25 kickoff of the new season.
Every MLS Next Pro match is included as part of the service on Apple TV+. Murphy views this deal as a major boon for the team and the brand.
“We did a lot of diligence,” he said. “I talked to a number of owners both in MLS and in other leagues and ultimately we decided because of the distribution platform and because I wanted to tie Cleveland to the No. 1 soccer league in this country. Because I think our vision is really a long-term vision and when I look down the road 15 years from now, I think we’re going to be best served by these decisions.”
Cleveland Also Eyeing NWSL Expansion
Not only is Cleveland getting an MLS Next Pro team, the growth of soccer in the city could also be bolstered by an NWSL side in the near future. The first women’s professional soccer league to sign a collective bargaining agreement with its players’ association currently features 12 teams and most recently expanded to California this year with Los Angeles and San Diego for its recently-completed 10th anniversary season.
At the end of Monday’s press conference, Murphy revealed that the NWSL expansion bid has moved forward.
“Our vision has always been, from the beginning, about men’s and women’s professional soccer,” he said, to applause from the crowd. “So, I would be remiss if I didn’t share some news with you today: The National Women’s Soccer League, the NWSL, the top professional women’s soccer league in the world, is expanding. We have submitted our application and we’ve been working with the league the last few months, and just found out recently that we’re progressing to the next round. Cleveland, we’re in the game.”
With MLS Next Pro in the fold, an NWSL expansion team could propel Cleveland into being America’s next great soccer city.
Is Erling Haaland the best player in the world?
Just a few short months ago, the possibility of an MLS Next Pro team first made headlines in Cleveland when the parent league visited the city and placed emphasis on its developmental organization. It’s been four months since those initial conversations and now, possibility has turned into reality.
As someone who lives about an hour or so away from Cleveland, it’s a great sports town with devoted fans. Despite the ups, downs, and occasional controversies that Cleveland sports encounters, the fans root for the team win or lose.
Cleveland sports fans show up and show out all the time, every time. They’ll do the same here. Congratulations to the city.
Main image credit Embed from Getty Images