What started out as an MLS expansion race among seven cities set to conclude in January has now turned into a race among five contenders hoping to convince Major League Soccer that their cities should be the chosen markets when the league announces its 17th and 18th franchises in March.
Montreal's controversial exit and Atlanta's recent departure from the field has left us with five contenders for the two 2011 expansion slots, three American markets and two Canadian markets, all of which have different weaknesses and strengths.
Trying to gauge the favorites in this field isn't easy because every time you think you have a favorite pegged, something unexpected happens. There was the Montreal bid, which seemed to be a can't-miss bid and the best option among the Canadian candidates. All it took for MLS to pull the quick hook was Montreal's trying to negotiate the expansion fee of $40 million. This made the race even tougher to predict.
Then there is St. Louis, which seems to have all the components of a strong bid. It has a local ownership group with a sports-star figurehead in MLB's Albert Pujols and a ready-to-go stadium project. Throw in the soccer history and strong youth soccer culture in St. Louis and you would think St. Louis was the easiest choice of all. At least until you hear MLS commissioner Don Garber remind us for the umpteenth time that the St. Louis ownership group needs to get stronger financially.
Despite the league's concerns about the financial strength of St. Louis' bid, MLS officials insist that the current shaky state of the U.S. and global economy has yet to put a serious dent in its efforts to expand.
"We haven't seen an effect yet from the economy on the interest in expansion," MLS president Mark Abbott said. "It remains very strong. Each of the ownership groups is very strong. We haven't seen that impacting our expansion efforts."
Reports in Atlanta suggest otherwise, with the economy's being blamed for the Atlanta bid's inability to secure the partnerships it needed to be able to build a stadium by 2011.
The ability of expansion cities to build their own soccer stadiums has been another interesting development in this 2011 expansion race. In past expansion cycles, it was believed that teams needed to build their own stadiums to be serious contenders, but San Jose's and Seattle's recent expansion bids have proven that this isn't the case.
"You don't necessarily have to build a stadium from the start," Abbott said. "There could be, as we've talked about in Miami, an existing facility that may need upgrades, renovations or modifications.
"The most traditional model is the construction of new stadiums, like Home Depot in Los Angeles, but it's not the only model by which to achieve those goals," Abbott said. "In Miami, what is being discussed is FIU, but that is a stadium that has been renovated with soccer in mind, and the opportunity for the team to generate revenues from the facility.
"What doesn't work for us is simply to be a tenant in somebody else's facility where we're the second or third tenants and don't have any scheduling flexibility or priority, where we don't have access to revenue streams that professional sports teams typically earn from facilities."
How does the league's philosophy on expansion bid stadiums affect the expansion race? It means a city like St. Louis, which already has a stadium plan and public funding in place, isn't benefiting from being the only current bidder with a stadium project ready to go.
That leaves us with five interesting and imperfect bids vying for two expansion berths. We looked at the contenders three months ago. Now, with the decision set to come down in March, here is one more look at the remaining candidates, in order of probability, as they head down the stretch:
Has to be considered the favorite right now. The Miami bid, backed by Spanish giants FC Barcelona and billionaire Marcelo Claure, has had the most buzz, and there have been constant rumblings that Barcelona's considerable involvement in the bid is helping push it to the forefront (along with Claure's bankroll).
The biggest concern about Miami is no longer the poor legacy of the Miami Fusion, which failed in nearby Ft. Lauderdale, but rather the ability of the ownership group to build a stadium in the near future. The proposed temporary home for a Miami MLS club would be the Florida International University football stadium, which would need to be renovated considerably to make it a viable home for an MLS team. Ultimately, a Barcelona-backed Miami club would need its own venue, and it remains unclear just what the ownership group's long-term plans are in that department.
In the end, Miami stands as the current favorite because its ownership group is as close to recession-proof as any in the expansion race, and MLS might just wind up putting its faith in Miami's rich investors' being able to make things work in a way they didn't for the Fusion.
Regarded as one of the early favorites along with St. Louis and Montreal, Portland's bid has benefited from the demise of one bid and the continued concerns about the financial strength of the other. Bolstered by the financial backing of bid leader Merritt Paulson and the strong reputation the city has for supporting its USL-1 team, the Portland Timbers, Portland's bid looks strong, but its viability hinges on the renovation of PGE Park.
Portland is still trying to secure the public financial backing to go through with the necessary changes to PGE Park. Also, the recent controversy surrounding Portland mayor Sam Adams (a major backer of the Portland MLS bid) and the disclosure that he lied about a sexual relationship with a teenager, can't help. If Paulson fails in securing the funding and support to renovate PGE Park, then Portland's could become the latest "can't-miss" bid to fall by the wayside.
You could call Vancouver's bid "the Forgotten Bid," at least in the United States. After getting plenty of buzz early, in part because of the inclusion of NBA star Steve Nash in the bid, Vancouver has received little fanfare in recent months, leaving us to wonder just where it stands in the race.
Given Garber's comments about the league's wanting financially strong ownership groups, Vancouver has to be feeling pretty comfortable. With billionaire Greg Kerfoot, former Yahoo CEO Jeff Mallett and Nash among the members of the group, money is hardly an issue for the Vancouver bid.
So what is an issue? A stadium had been the big concern in Vancouver, but with plans to renovate BC Place already in place, Vancouver's bid is actually much stronger than it is being given credit for.
"There's lots of people aware we've submitted a bid and that it's a pretty solid bid, so we're hearing lots of things from people in general," Vancouver Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi told the Vancouver Sun last week. "At this stage, it doesn't mean much because we haven't really had any clear indication from the league. So as far as we're concerned, we're still in a battle for those two spots."
St. Louis has the local interest, the stadium project and a well-respected ownership group. What it doesn't have is a billionaire whom MLS can feel comfortable with to handle any potential financial challenges the league and the current economic climate might present.
"We really want to be in St. Louis," Garber told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "but in order to be here, we have to be sure that every aspect of [prospective owner] Jeff Cooper's bid is solid, and one of the weaknesses it has today is that Jeff has not been able to secure the investor who has very deep pockets.
"And that's not just to satisfy the league's needs, that's to assure that the team will be successful in St. Louis, that it can make the right investments in the community, that it can make the right investments in player development, fan development, marketing, promotion, both on- and off-field staff," Garber said. "Lastly, should there be economic challenges for the league, we need to know that the group can have a couple of rocky years. Right now, we're not secure that his group can satisfy the objectives so the team will be successful. Now, other bids [also] have other weaknesses."
Those aren't exactly the things you want to hear as an expansion group just two months before MLS is to make its decision. Jeff Cooper has stated in the past that he has some investors lined up who should help the bid, but with Garber's speaking out just two weeks ago, one can't help but wonder if it will be enough to help one of the country's true soccer hotbeds secure an MLS team that it feels is long overdue.
The underdog of the group, Ottawa has the financial muscle and the stadium plans, but not the reputation as a soccer market that some of the other contenders have, nor the market size one would expect a growing league like MLS to want.
So how has Ottawa's bid gotten this far? There are fewer concerns about the ownership group, led by Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, and its stadium proposal is certainly an intriguing one. MLS officials are set to visit Ottawa next week, and now that Montreal has fallen out of the race, Ottawa has gone from longest of long shots to a sleeper that just might surprise the field.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.