Seattle expansion franchise to begin play in '09
SEATTLE -- The call came unsolicited, from a powerful Hollywood executive whom Don Garber didn't know.
The commissioner of Major League Soccer quickly learned Joe Roth wasn't just a soccer fan poking around at the idea of putting some money into the MLS. Roth was serious in wanting his own franchise.
"Cold call," Garber said. "He said, 'My name is Joe Roth and I want to talk to you about coming into MLS.'"
That was in February. On Tuesday, the MLS formally announced that Seattle would become its 15th franchise, beginning play in 2009, concluding the long wait for Pacific Northwest soccer fans.
The yet-to-be-named team will play at Qwest Field, home of the Seattle Seahawks. The expansion Tuesday makes Seattle the league's 15th club and follows the rebirth of the San Jose Earthquakes, who will start play in 2008.
"I woke up one morning in February and told my wife I wanted to start an MLS franchise," said Roth, who will be the majority owner of the Seattle franchise.
The other members of the ownership group include Paul Allen's Vulcan Sports and Entertainment, actor and "The Price is Right" host Drew Carey and Adrian Hanauer, owner of the Seattle Sounders of the United Soccer Leagues. Hanauer will serve as the general manager.
Once Roth established his interest in starting a team, Garber pointed Roth to the Pacific Northwest, where Seattle, Portland, Ore., and Vancouver, British Columbia, had all expressed interest in a franchise.
After studying the three markets, Roth settled on Seattle, partnering with Allen's group and Hanauer. Having a suitable facility already in place certainly helped.
"I didn't have a destination, just an idea," Roth said. "I told [Garber] I want to help grow a franchise in a city and I want to be involved with the growth of the league in general."
The stadium was built with a public-private partnership and was pitched to voters as being a home for the Seahawks and top-level soccer. The upper deck of the stadium will be blocked off, creating an intimate 24,500-seat venue in the lower bowl.
"Without Vulcan sports, we wouldn't have had a facility that would allow this team to come in in 2009," Garber said. "We've been trying for many years with Adrian and previous owners of the Sounders to come up to Seattle and haven't been successful. The stars aligned with Vulcan, Hanauer and Roth, and we're very lucky to have the ownership group. This is a power group."
Carey, a noted soccer fan and supporter of the United States national team, joined the group late in the process after a lunch meeting with Roth. Carey had two requirements before investing -- that the team have a marching band and that there be a supporters club where members can vote on whether the general manager should be replaced every four years. The idea is based off a similar system at FC Barcelona.
"I told him he had to paint his face and play trumpet with the marching band," Roth said.
Hanauer has been owner and GM of the Seattle Sounders for six years, creating one of the top teams at that level of soccer, winning two championships in the last three years. But Hanauer grew up with the Sounders of the North American Soccer League and kept engaging Garber about potential MLS expansion.
"It has just been one positive experience," said Hanauer, who signed the papers with his partners on Friday. "I felt good, because it felt right."
Hanauer said the Sounders will play in 2008 in the USL and the MLS team will have the first chance to sign any Sounders players to their roster.
It's the second expansion for the growing league this year and the MLS might not be done.
Garber's goal is to have 16 teams playing in 2009 and potentially 18 teams by the 2011 season. To achieve that goal, the 16th team -- Garber mentioned St. Louis -- would need to be in place by the end of this year, preferably a team that would play in the Eastern Conference.
"With us, things are never perfectly aligned, but it would be positive to have an eastern team for our 16th team," Garber said.