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The MLS Wrap: Southeast expansion full speed ahead

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Martin MacMahon: MLS should stick to summer soccer
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Martin MacMahon: MLS should stick to summer soccer

All you need to do to understand just how important making inroads into the Southeast United States is for Major League Soccer is just look at a map of the country showing where current MLS teams are located. The void in the bottom right corner of the nation is a glaring one, and has been ever since the contraction of the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny 12 years ago cost the league its place in that corner of the country.

So it should come as no surprise that, after completing the league’s other long-standing goal of placing a second team in New York (with New York City FC in 2015), MLS would turn its attention to the Southeast.

It is easy to forget that MLS commissioner Don Garber’s early tenure was marked by the league’s contraction in 2001, a time that saw MLS shrink from 12 teams to 10. A time when there were serious questions about the future of the league. With Garber’s help, MLS survived that rough period and has since thrived and seen the size of the league nearly double in just a decade.

MLS has moved well beyond worrying about survival now, and is instead pushing ahead with rapid expansion, at a rate that could be seen as moving too quickly. It will be to the Southeast to buck its own reputation as a region of the country that has proven a tough nut to crack for pro sports teams.

That is, after all, the big fear when considering a three-team power move into a region MLS has already failed in before. There are, after all, markets with more history, like St. Louis, that would seem to be safer bets.

It isn’t about safe bets, or history, with MLS. It’s about dollars, and finding deep-pocketed ownership groups with the financial muscle to not just buy an MLS expansion franchise, but also fund a team to succeed in a league where teams are spending more and more each year.

Enter Atlanta, Orlando and Miami - three markets with ownership groups capable of jumping into MLS and competing with big-market and big-money teams like New York, Los Angeles and Seattle. Atlanta, with NFL owner and Home Depot magnate Arthur Blank, could be a gold mine if the team can tap into the strong soccer fan presence that exists there.

Miami is a trickier proposition. We have seen enough shots of half-empty (or in some cases mostly empty) stadiums for Miami sports teams to know the risks of adding an MLS team. You will hear all about how the Miami Fusion couldn’t make it work in MLS a dozen years ago (even though the Fusion played in Fort Lauderdale, not in Miami).

That is where MLS will be hoping that having more financially solid ownership in the market can help. Billionaire Marcelo Claure and David Beckham have long been reported as a potential ownership partnership, but Miami Dolphins owner Steve Ross is also reportedly interested in buying in. Whichever group does land a Miami team -- and the Claure-Beckham combo seems the safer bet -- will be stepping into a market still feeling the sting of the failed Miami Marlins stadium project.

What MLS will be hoping for is to bank on the vastly changed demographics in the Miami area, where soccer has shown signs of being far more popular than in past decades. A steady stream of high-profile friendlies have been played in Miami to good-sized crowds, while television ratings for events like the World Cup, and more recently the USA-Mexico World Cup qualifier, show Miami to be one of the strongest soccer markets in the country.

The question is just who will put up the millions to find out of that is true? As it stands, MLS looks like it could have a few options to choose from.

Then you have Orlando, which looks to be the safest bet to secure an expansion team thanks to the consistent and impressive lobbying efforts of the Orlando City FC ownership group. Playing in the equivalent of American soccer’s third division, USL PRO, Orlando City has steadily drawn respectable crowds and shown characteristics of a market that could thrive in MLS.

Having Orlando, Miami and Atlanta join MLS would not only fill the void in the Southeast, it could help MLS make inroads in some markets where a successful sports team could thrive. The success of markets like Seattle and Portland surely have MLS believing markets like Miami and Atlanta could buck their reputations as poor sports markets.

It could be seen as a gamble to push all-in on the Southeast, but given the growth of the league over the past eight years, and the growing interest in the sport nationwide, it looks every bit like a gamble worth taking. Especially if, as it seems, MLS has found the backers to fund that high-priced bet.

WEEK 30 REWIND

Seattle’s Signature Win

The Seattle Sounders had won six of seven matches, but it wasn’t until Friday’s 2-0 victory vs. Real Salt Lake that you could really get a sense of the Sounders as a full-fledged title contender.

The match was the first in a long time where Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid had close to a full-strength team, and even though he chose to bring Clint Dempsey and Eddie Johnson off the bench after their roles as starters for the USA in last Tuesday’s win vs. Mexico, Schmid showed off a team with some serious firepower and depth.

What we finally got to see on Friday was how this Sounders team could stack up against a top team in the league, and RSL came into Friday’s match with the best record in MLS. Seattle responded by dominating RSL in a way we hadn’t seen RSL beaten all year.

Dynamo halts slide to jump back into playoff spot

The Houston Dynamo are like Jason Vorhees, the character in the Friday the 13th horror movie series. Just when you think they are finished, they come back and surprise you and leave a mess in their wake.

Heading into Saturday’s match vs. the Philadelphia Union, the Dynamo were winless in four matches and had just traded away locker room leader Adam Moffatt in a head-scratcher of a trade. Saturday’s trip to PP&L Park had the possibility of being a loss that could cripple their playoff hopes.

Instead of losing on the road, as they tend to do, the Dynamo stepped up and delivered a hard-fought 1-0 victory that catapulted them from sixth place in the East, to fourth place. Just like that, the two time MLS Cup finalists are back in the thick of the playoff race.

Dom Kinnear’s team still has a lot of work to do, and holding onto the playoff spot while also competing in the CONCACAF Champions League group stage won’t be easy. But if we have learned anything the past two years about the Dynamo, it is that even if they squeak into the playoffs, they can make things happen.

Red Bulls all alone atop Eastern Conference

The New York Red Bulls are notorious for late-season slides, but their 2-0 win vs. Toronto FC not only made it three wins in a row, it also helped the Red Bulls move into sole possession of first place in the East.

How much should we read into their recent run? It’s easy to write it off considering the wins came against teams that aren’t among the league’s top half. That may be true, but the team’s run in July and early August, when they beat the Montreal Impact, Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City, that said much more.

The recent run has been made more impressive by the absence of injured star Tim Cahill, even if the level of play hasn’t exactly been that of a title contender. We should learn a lot more about the Red Bulls in two weeks, when they take on the Seattle Sounders.

Timbers forwards keep sputtering

It isn’t often that a team makes history in a positive way yet still comes away from a match feeling disappointed. That was the case for the Portland Timbers, who set a new team record for points in a season in a 1-1 draw vs. Chivas USA that had to be considered a major letdown.

Yes, Chivas USA is playing much better these days than as recently as a month ago, but Portland saw another pair of points slip away in a match where it had the better of the play and the dominant edge in possession.

Caleb Porter continues to experiment at forward, with Jose Valencia getting a look this time around. The Timbers’ lack of a go-to striker is their biggest weakness, and as much as Portland is hoping Maximiliano Urruti can be the answer, the Timbers are facing the prospects of going into the playoffs with the weakest set of forwards in the West. Something that will likely keep them from being a serious title contender this year, and something Porter and the Timbers will make priority number one in the offseason.

Rapids keep pressure on West’s best

A quick look at the top of the Western Conference standings shows several teams you would expect to see there, and one team most wouldn’t have had still being around at this point in the season.

That surprise is the Colorado Rapids, who continue to show they aren’t going anywhere as they posted their third win in four matches to edge ahead of the Los Angeles Galaxy for third place in the West. The Rapids' 7-1-4 record in their past 12 is the mark of a team that is serious about continuing to shake up conventional thinking about who to take seriously in the West.

The Rapids are doing it with depth created by the steady maturation of several young players, as well as an aggressive approach to roster-building in the summer. Colorado’s acquisitions of veteran striker Vicente Sanchez and Panamanian forward Gabriel Torres were the moves of a team serious about trying to win this year.

How far Colorado goes will likely still come down to how its strong core of young players respond, and the team’s lack of postseason experience could be an issue against teams like the Galaxy and Sounders, but right now the Rapids are looking like a team nobody is going to want to have to deal with come playoff time.

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