The 2011 Major League Soccer season might seem far in the distance, but it's less than two and a half years away. Fewer than 30 months for two new ownership groups to step up, spend tens of millions and build professional soccer teams from scratch. Two cities will be chosen to join MLS by 2011 and the path to selecting those two cities is going to hold the attention of soccer fans in every current and potentially future MLS market for the next two months.
Fans in the South are wondering whether Atlanta, a relative underdog in the expansion race, can help MLS break ground in that part of the country for the first time since two Florida teams were dissolved after the 2001 season. Fans in Canada are wondering if MLS is ready to add another team north of the border to join Toronto FC.
Then there are the established soccer-loving cities that have been linked to potential MLS franchises for years. Portland and St. Louis have long been considered favorites that deserve a place in MLS, whether for their roles in American soccer history or their strong fan bases.
Lastly you have Miami, the market that has already lost an MLS club once. A local billionaire and a European soccer powerhouse have teamed up to give Miami a real chance of winning the expansion battle.
It can be argued that there are enough good expansion prospects to have MLS expand by four teams in the next three years, but the strains on the league's talent pool might dilute the talent too much. With Seattle set to come on board in 2009, and Philadelphia joining in 2010, MLS will have added four teams over the course of four years BEFORE the two new teams would be added in 2011.
Just how important is winning one of these two expansion slots? When you consider that MLS might put a moratorium on expansion for as many as two to three years after reaching 18 teams, and you also consider that a second New York team would stand a very good chance of being a top contender in 2013 or 2014, missing out on the expansion class of 2011 could mean missing out on MLS for three or four years, if not longer.
So how do the seven expansion candidates compare? Here is a closer look at all seven bids, along with how they stack up in the quest to become one of the two cities to be chosen for MLS expansion by 2011:
When an NFL owner is seriously interested in joining MLS, MLS listens. Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who made his fortune co-founding Home Depot, has the sports marketing savvy and local pull that has MLS believing he could cultivate a burgeoning soccer market.
So what is working against Atlanta's bid? The lack of a tangible stadium plan is the biggest hurdle for Atlanta to overcome. Blank's group has looked into possible stadium sites in the Atlanta suburbs of Cobb County and Gwinnett County as possibilities. Atlanta will need to piece together a stronger stadium proposal if it is going to really challenge the expansion favorites. Strength of bid: C+
Having a billionaire backing the bid isn't enough on its own to make Miami a strong contender. But combine billionaire Marcelo Claure with the international pull of Spanish powerhouse FC Barcelona, and you suddenly have a bid MLS must take seriously.
The biggest concerns surrounding the Miami bid is history, namely the fact that former MLS team Miami Fusion tried and failed as a business from 1998 to 2001. Miami supporters will point out that the Fusion played in Ft. Lauderdale and not in Miami, and the Fusion didn't have the type of ownership group the new Miami team could boast. With Claure's financial muscle and Barcelona's soccer organization skills, Miami could take full advantage of the changing demographics in the area. The fact that the Miami group wants to launch in 2010 shows you how ready it thinks Miami is to have MLS back. Strength of bid: B
Considered one of the front-runners even before the final seven was set, Montreal boasts rich owners, an established soccer fan base, an existing infrastructure courtesy of a successful USL team and, perhaps most importantly, an existing stadium that can be increased in size.
Between Montreal Impact owner Joey Saputo and Liverpool co-owner George Gillet, the Montreal expansion team would have plenty of soccer management experience, as well as the deep pockets to ensure the long-term success of an expansion club. Throw in the possibility that having teams in Montreal and Toronto could move MLS a step closer to a Canadian national television contract, it is tough to imagine Montreal not being chosen when it has the most complete bid in the bunch. Strength of bid: A
Easily the biggest long shot in the field, Ottawa has a prospective owner in billionaire Senators owner Eugene Melnyk and a promising plan for a 20,000-seat soccer stadium, but not much else. There is the potential for a rivalry with Toronto FC, but that is already one of Montreal's selling points.
So why should we believe that Ottawa would embrace a soccer team? The city successfully hosted Under-20 World Cup matches in 2007, creating good buzz that helped create the impetus for this bid. Is that enough to seriously consider Ottawa over Montreal, or any of the American candidates? Not really. Consider this the longest of long shots. Strength of bid: C-
While other candidates are leaning on billionaires and innovative stadium plans, the Portland bid is leaning heavily on its most impressive asset: the city's rabid soccer fans. There is little arguing that the USL Portland Timbers boast one of the strongest fan bases in North America, and its established rivalry with incoming MLS expansion team Seattle Sounders FC has the Rose City looking like an easy call.
So why wouldn't Portland be a shoe-in? The bid is contingent on the city of Portland renovating PGE Park and building a new stadium for the city's minor league baseball team, which isn't overly appealing. Also, the media market is relatively small in Portland (the smallest market of the four American bids, but not much smaller than St. Louis and still larger than current MLS cities Columbus and Salt Lake City). The state of the nation's economy could wind up hurting this bid, which is far from the lock that some might think it is. Strength of bid: B+
You have to feel for the soccer fans in St. Louis, who must be completely perplexed by how a city with so much soccer history and such a reputation for supporting the sport hasn't already joined MLS. The simple answer is money. It's unclear whether there is a prospective owner with sufficient financial backing to not just bring MLS to St. Louis, but help an MLS team flourish there.
Enter Jeff Cooper, the leader of the St. Louis bid. He has succeeded in helping establish the framework for a soccer stadium that would be, at least in part, publicly funded. As important as that is, MLS must still be concerned with the lack of an owner or owners with deep pockets to help guarantee the future stability of the club. That said, the city's soccer history and stadium plan have it among the front-runners. Strength of bid: B+
There is no bid with a more high-profile face than Vancouver's, which boasts NBA star Steve Nash as a figurehead. Throw in Greg Kerfoot, owner of the USL champion Whitecaps, and former Yahoo! executive Jeffrey Mallet, and Vancouver actually boasts a strong ownership group. That, coupled with the potential for a rivalry with Seattle, make Vancouver a serious candidate.
What stands in the way? Portland is the biggest obstacle, with only one of those Pacific Northwest cities likely to be given a team. Then you have the Montreal bid, which is the favorite among the Canadian bids. If Vancouver's impressive plans for a waterfront soccer stadium were further along (the Whitecaps are set to move into 59,000-seat B.C. Place stadium in 2010) the bid would be a more serious contender. As it stands, it is playing second fiddle in two major categories, something that will be difficult to overcome. Strength of bid: C+
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.