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Apr 15, 2009

Further expansion on the docket for MLS

When the MLS Board of Governors convenes at a swank Manhattan hotel April 22, one of the many items on the docket for discussion will be this burning question:

Where and when should the league expand next?

Make no mistake: Weeks after Seattle's debut reduced an emotional commissioner Don Garber to tears, after Vancouver and Portland outlasted five other North American cities to win the 2011 expansion sweepstakes, further growth is still a hot topic around the league.

Which makes sense, of course, given the total and wide-ranging success of Sounders FC. A success that has captured imaginations and raised the ceiling of what's possible for professional soccer teams in America.

But amid the hysteria are subtle reminders of speed bumps ahead. A funding shortfall in Portland is already threatening the Timbers' ascension to the big-time. In Philadelphia, which is scheduled to launch its team next year, the steadily dwindling fortune of lead investor Jay Sugarman is a legitimate cause for concern.

Could it be that MLS is expanding a bit too quickly?

To date, Major League Soccer's calculated growth strategy has been supremely impressive. It has added five teams in the past four years, with three more on the way over the next 23 months.

Concerns about diluting a limited talent pool should be addressed by hiring more mid-level foreigners and spending slightly more on salaries, which is how the league has successfully coped with the brain drain in the past. Even without a significant salary-cap increase -- not including the designated player allowance -- there is no question the standard of play is significantly higher than it was as a 10-team operation in 2004.

Plus, the enthusiasm of new fans in major markets like Seattle, Toronto and Houston has inched MLS closer than ever to mainstream status, not to mention profitability.

And speaking of money, who can blame MLS' existing owners -- some of whom have lost tens of millions of dollars over the years -- for wanting their share of close to $40 million in entry fees from cities that want in?

Indeed, Garber has said repeatedly that swelling to 20 teams isn't a matter of if, but when. But for those convinced it will happen sooner rather than later, it's worth pointing out that there is no clear front-runner for the next phase, at least not yet.

Here are the early candidates, in no particular order.

St. Louis

From a geographical perspective alone, St. Louis benefits from the fact that Garber & Co. want another team in the Midwest. But the moneymen in the Gateway City lack "the resources necessary to both purchase an expansion team and also operate it at a level the fans in St. Louis expect," the commish said recently. Clearly, that will have to change.

A little help from InBev, the Belgian conglomerate which spent $52 billion to acquire St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch last year, would go a long way toward helping this soccer-loving city secure a club. AB, an original MLS sponsor, has already offered to donate land for a stadium, but there is little reason to believe it will ever commit real money to the project.

Ottawa

Strong potential ownership in Ottawa, which was also passed over for 2011, has taken Canada's capital from long shot to serious contender, especially if the city council approves a stadium plan later this month. But that's a big question mark.

"If they're able to decide that they want to get behind Major League Soccer, then Ottawa would be a very viable candidate for the next round," Garber said.

Coincidentally, that decision is expected the same day league honchos will meet in New York.

Montreal

Montreal was an early favorite last time around, but when investors there weren't willing to pay anything close to the asking price last November, Canada's second-largest city abruptly left the race.

"The way it sort of happened last fall was unfortunate," said MLS president Mark Abbott. "But they're people we've known for a long time and continue to have conversations with."

Even if cash-strapped Liverpool co-owner George Gillett isn't involved, Montreal remains an obvious fit for the league. Like Seattle, it's an international city that boasts a top-notch USL-1 team, a built-in fan base and wealthy potential backers in the Saputo family. (Through a spokesman, Impact owner Joey Saputo declined comment for this story.) It is also a natural rival with Toronto and Vancouver (and Ottawa) and already has an expandable soccer-specific venue.

If Celine Dion is unsuccessful in her bid to buy the NHL's Montreal Canadiens from Gillett, could she be persuaded to redirect some of her fortune to a soccer startup in her hometown?

New York City

The league has never made a secret of its desire to have a squad in the heart of the world's biggest media market. The club would likely be based in Queens, where Garber grew up, but there have been no new discussions between MLS brass and the Wilpon family that owns baseball's Mets and has shown interest previously. "We remain hopeful that there's a second team in New York," Garber said. Rumors that Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helu was interested in backing a Gotham-based bid was unfounded.

Las Vegas, Atlanta, Miami

Without Barcelona's substantial clout, Miami is back near the bottom of the queue with its fellow outsiders in Sin City and in the still-untapped southeastern U.S. Then again, as the latest round of expansion showed, things can change in a flash.

"It's very early to make any decisions," Garber said. "We've got a little time."

But the process is already under way.

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

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