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Jul 25, 2008

Vancouver and Montreal candidates for expansion

TORONTO -- Fans and the media alike have come to expect a major announcement every time MLS commissioner Don Garber grabs the mic to deliver his biannual state-of-the-league address.

Who can blame them? At the 2006 all-star game in Chicago, Garber revealed that ESPN and MLS had entered into a landmark multimillion-dollar television rights deal. Later that year at the MLS Cup, Garber spread word that the league's owners finally had given the go-ahead for the designated-player rule, which would bring living legends like David Beckham and Cuauhtemoc Blanco to MLS fields near you.

And so, with the most recent speech taking place in Canada's largest city one day before Blanco and Beckham teamed up to dispatch yet another Premier League foe in soccer's version of the Midsummer Classic, many of those in attendance at the Liberty Grand on the banks of Lake Ontario were hoping the commish would announce the latest winner in the MLS expansion sweepstakes. Even more so after NBA star Steve Nash, a Vancouver native and the face of his city's bid for a spot in MLS, recently stirred the pot by saying he was "hoping to have some good news" this week.

But there was no news to be had Wednesday. Instead, Garber rattled thorough a laundry list of the league's many recent successes. He trumpeted the overall attendance bump and the 20 percent ratings increase on ESPN. He highlighted the diversification of the MLS ownership portfolio -- 10 new moneymen since 2005. He talked about the stadiums being built in Salt Lake City and New Jersey and the ones on the way in Kansas City, San Jose and Philadelphia, which will join the league in 2010.

He noted that Seattle Sounders FC already has sold almost 16,000 season tickets with its debut season still eight months away. And, not least, he spoke about the respect MLS is slowly but surely earning, both at home and overseas. Impressive? Certainly. News? Not to those who follow closely.

As such, the most intriguing topic of discussion remained expansion. And with Canadian journalists filling much of the room, the focus clearly was on the potential for new clubs north of the border.

"Expansion is being driven by the success that we've had in Toronto," Garber said. "It is the blueprint of what we want to see happen throughout the rest of the United States and Canada."

Along with Vancouver, one of the other expansion front-runners has to be Montreal. The USL's Montreal Impact, which Garber watched eliminate Toronto FC from the Canadian Championship on Tuesday at BMO Field, draw more fans to their newly minted, soccer-specific stadium (about which Garber raves) than several MLS teams draw. The city is a natural rival for Toronto. Plus, Liverpool and Montreal Canadiens owner George Gillett reportedly is considering buying in. Ottawa is another Canadian candidate, if a long shot for now.

But even though Montreal and Vancouver are making stong cases for inclusion, and even though TFC has been a smash hit on every level (except, ironically enough, in the win column), with six American cities also in the running for just two spots, a second Canadian team -- let alone a third -- being added during the next three years is hardly a forgone conclusion.

"We understand that this country is passionate about the sport, but that passion is not enough," Garber said. "We need to make sure it makes good business sense here in comparison to adding those teams down in the United States."

Despite that warning, it is obvious that everyone associated with MLS is smitten with Toronto FC, as well as with the idea that what has occurred here can be instantly duplicated in other Canadian markets.

Whether that is a realistic expectation remains to be seen. But it is worth noting that a day after Garber took the podium, the MLS Board of Governors formally committed to expanding by two more teams by 2011 and issued a statement saying that MLS will work with TFC owners Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, the Canadian expansion candidates, corporate sponsors and national broadcasters to develop commercial revenue streams to support expansion in Canada.

"We believe the potential here is massive," Garber said.

"If we can recreate in Vancouver, Montreal and potentially Ottawa what we have here in Toronto and deeply engage the local and national media and the business community behind this effort, we believe -- and this is a bold statement -- that soccer can assume its place at some point alongside hockey as one of Canada's great national sports."

Bold statement indeed. Another bold statement concerning the Canadian intentions of MLS could be coming via an announcement in late November, at Garber's next state-of-the-league adddess.

Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.

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