MLS seeks more northern exposure

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! SportsJuly 31, 2008

Trying to predict the Major League Soccer expansion free-for-all has become a game reserved for the brave or the foolish.

Every comment, every rumor and each carefully worded update from MLS commissioner Don Garber seems to bring a shift in the power struggle for inclusion in the league. To be considered a frontrunner is no guarantee of success and things can change quickly. Just ask Cleveland and San Antonio, cities that at one point looked highly likely to land new franchises.

At present, though, the expansion radar is pointed towards Canada, and it is unlikely to shift any time soon.

With two more teams to join in 2011, the groups behind Montreal and Vancouver are both tipped to present a formidable case. Even previously unmentioned Ottawa was included in the league's eight-city shortlist.

While adding two more Canadian teams would create certain roster-filling dilemmas, many factors are turning the attention of MLS chiefs northwards.

The roaring success of the first expansion into Canada, with Toronto FC continuing to play in front of a passionate sellout crowd every game, has clearly whetted the league's appetite for another Canadian entry. That financial firepower has pushed the Canadian bids to the forefront at this stage.

Joey Saputo, owner of United Soccer League side Montreal Impact, is determined to secure an MLS license and already has some infrastructure in place. The Impact's Saputo Stadium holds around 13,000 and could comfortably be expanded to 20,000 if MLS gives the green light.

Early indications in the Montreal market are that the public would welcome an MLS team with open arms and provide a level of support similar to that in Toronto. But what is needed for the league to keep growing is for the expansion teams, starting with Seattle Sounders FC next year, to be ambitious, competitive and well-supported. Vancouver also fits the criteria, with the USL Whitecaps a well-established and professionally run outfit.

If MLS decides that a double dip into Canada for the class of 2011 is one too many, then the battle between Montreal and Vancouver will be fiercely fought.

In Vancouver's corner is NBA star and British Columbia native Steve Nash, who wants to see MLS in his home city. Nash has teamed up with the Whitecaps billionaire owner Greg Kerfoot to present a bid, but the key to Vancouver's success is likely to hinge around the construction of a stunning downtown waterfront stadium that is currently being delayed by political red tape.

The strength of the bids is a huge plus for MLS, which can now demand extra-high standards from potential newcomers. To have several dedicated and determined business groups all striving against each other for a limited numbers of spots greatly increases the likelihood of success in the market eventually chosen.

Here we rank the eight cities mentioned by commissioner Garber last week in order of their chances to win expansion rights.

MLS EXPANSION DESTINATION RANKINGS

1. Montreal. The transition into MLS would be relatively seamless and the Impact have shown that there is already an appetite for soccer in the city. Chances: 70 percent.

2. St. Louis. It lacks the wealth of backing enjoyed by some other bids but has a brand new stadium to look forward to and an impressive figurehead in Jeff Cooper. Chances: 60 percent.

3. Vancouver. Would leap to the front of the pack if stadium issues could be resolved. Nash adds some star power and profile. Chances: 35 percent.

4. Portland The Portland group is going about its business quietly but can not be discounted. A ready-made local rivalry with Seattle is a potential plus. Chances: 15 percent.

5. Atlanta. Well-backed in the form of Arthur Blank, owner of the National Football League's Atlanta Falcons, but little progress has been made on a new stadium. Chances: 10 percent.

6. Las Vegas. Rumors of a $500 million stadium with a retractable roof and a cash-laden ownership group are still around, but no public announcement equals no momentum – and probably no chance. Chances: 5 percent.

7. New York. It is hard to see the logic in a second N.Y. franchise until the Red Bulls start pulling in big crowds. Chances: 4 percent.

8. Ottawa. Not a soccer market and little reason to be on the list except for the millions of Eugene Melnyk, owner of the National Hockey League's Ottawa Senators. Chances: 1 percent.