Barcelona looks to blaze new U.S. trail

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

The executive offices of FC Barcelona are a world within a world, an island of sanity in a city that lives and breathes the club with which it shares a name.

The intensity of the passion which Barcelona is afforded by its followers in Catalonia, the autonomous region within Spain that many want to be its own nation, can be all-consuming. Yet even in these heady days with Barca seemingly on an inexorable march to La Liga and Champions League titles, the message from the club's hierarchy is one of caution.

It doesn't matter that leading up to the latest installment of the storied and hostile rivalry with struggling Real Madrid this Saturday, confidence among Barcelona fans rarely has been higher.

"We are trying to tell people you never know what can happen," said Joan Oliver, Barcelona's CEO. "People in Barcelona think we will win easily. It is never easy against Real Madrid. To be overconfident is a very dangerous thing."

In the club's latest project, though, there is less holding back. Amid the small matter of hunting down domestic and European glory, there is a flurry of activity aimed at branching deep into the United States.

The master plan: to have a presence in Major League Soccer by 2011 as part of an expansion franchise in Miami. The new team would play at Florida International University and benefit from a shared ethos and the extensive resources of the Barcelona sporting family.

Such a move would have been unthinkable less than a decade ago, when the club still was awakening to the potential riches from transporting its brand around the globe. Oliver stops short of claiming, like many MLS observers believe, that it's a done deal. But he doesn't have to.

In order to facilitate its MLS proposal, Barcelona teamed up with Bolivian cell phone entrepreneur Marcelo Claure to formulate what they hope is a bid too strong for the league to ignore.

Chivas USA started play in 2005 as an offshoot of Chivas of Guadalajara in the Mexican league, but the Barcelona project would be the first of its kind by a European superpower.

"We are pioneers," Oliver said. "Or at least we want to be pioneers. Other European teams, I am sure, will be looking at what we are doing and could copy us if it is successful."

Big challenges lie ahead. Miami has a reputation of being one of the toughest sports markets in the country, and there is already a history of MLS failure with the ill-fated Fusion having collapsed in 2001 after four years in the league.

The Fusion had neither the right location (Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale) nor the Barcelona links, but the inability of that franchise to get established is one strike against the new effort.

"Miami is right at this time because it is the largest market without an MLS team," Oliver argued. "The demographics of Miami have changed dramatically. It is less Cuban and less about baseball. It is more South American now.

"The city has a role as the gateway to South America. We want to build a team that reflects that, a team of the Americas, to unify these different people.

"We know it is not an easy market. We know the history in MLS was not successful. We know the problems in other sports. But we are confident that with our brand we can push the interest in the region."

In reality, a franchise in the next wave of expansion in 2011 looks likes Barcelona's to lose. It would take something unforeseen and remarkable for MLS to throw Barca's interest back in its face.

Chances are that Miami-Barcelona, or whichever similar name the key parties come up with, will happen, leaving the other five bidding cities to fight over one remaining spot.

"There are some great bids," said Claure, who is president of Bolivia's Club Bolivar, which has a co-operative agreement with Barcelona. "But we believe we have something above and beyond – we are the best bid out there."

Skeptics will question whether Barcelona's North American interest is primarily centered around wanting to sell shirts and boost its merchandising revenues. However, there is a deep-rooted soccer element to the proposal that Oliver insists will not be compromised.

"Our idea is that the system of football would be the same," Oliver said. "It will be the same style. We want a team that would be recognizable as a team that plays as Barcelona.

"We want to replicate the model we have here in Spain. Of course, there will be a difference in terms of quality for financial reasons. There is a salary cap [in MLS] that is very low compared to what some of our players receive here [in Spain]. But in general the team system will be the same.

"We don't expect to win every year, but we want to play spectacular football, Barcelona football. This idea is very important to us."

It is hoped there will be the possibility for younger players from Barcelona to gain experience and exposure in MLS, as well as the potential for star names to join the league as designated players.

The pieces seem to be falling into place and the Barcelona/Miami bid seems to tick every box.

"Barcelona is a legendary club that is ready to add something special to the MLS market," Claure said. "And I think the MLS market is ready for Barcelona."

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