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May 7, 2010

With Montreal in place, MLS eyes 20th franchise

It's the fate of expansion announcements that the moment the champagne is drunk and confetti is swept off the floor, the focus immediately goes from "Congratulations" to "What's next?" So it goes for MLS and commissioner Don Garber, even on a day when it was announced that Montreal would be the league's 19th team. Without question, Friday's announcement was a banner day, not only for the league but for Montreal owner Joey Saputo, who had been trying to bring an expansion team to the city since around the time that MLS was born. "I've always said this is no longer a question of 'if,' but of 'when,'" Saputo said during a news conference in which his emotions, quite understandably, got the better of him at times. "I can finally say 'when' is here, and it's about time. ... The arrival of MLS in Montreal is nothing short of a revolution for our city and our soccer fans." But just moments after festivities had concluded, Garber was on the phone, keen to make clear that the league's expansion plans will proceed apace, even though Montreal won't grace the field until 2012, meaning the earliest the next expansion side could begin play would be a year later. "We've got plenty of time to build interest behind the 19th team," Garber said in an exclusive interview. "But we will be focusing immediately on team No. 20." Given the flaws endemic to the current crop of candidates, that additional time will be needed. The holy trinity of deep-pocketed investors, a suitable venue and a rabid fan base remains the base requirement for landing an expansion franchise. Yet the current crop of candidates remains short in one, if not more, of those areas. Garber reiterated his stance that putting a second team in the New York area remains "a priority." The possibility of creating another intracity derby, like the one that currently exists between the Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas USA, is something that the commissioner finds particularly appealing, despite Chivas' long-standing struggles at the gate. "We've seen the benefit of having rivalries in our league in a handful of markets, and certainly we're looking forward to more rivalries going forward," Garber said, citing Seattle and Vancouver; Montreal and Toronto; and Philadelphia with D.C. (United) and New York. "Creating a rivalry within a city, like we have with the Galaxy and Chivas USA, those are some of the best games we have in our season. If we're able to deliver that in one of the largest and most important cities in the world, I think that would be very valuable." One would think that the very thought of having a second team in New York would result in some pushback by the New York Red Bulls, but Garber insists that isn't the case. "The Red Bulls are very supportive of a second team," he said. "The Red Bulls really get it, much more than most people understand. They are cut from soccer cloth and they really understand how valuable a second team in New York can be for the overall growth of this sport in the tri-state area, particularly in providing an intense rivalry for their club." Yet adding a second team in the area, one that will reside within the city limits, currently faces some considerable obstacles. While the New York Mets' organization has shown some interest in acquiring an MLS franchise, it has indicated it won't commit until a suitable location for a stadium is found, a task that Garber describes as "a long-range project that requires a massive amount of work." That would appear to leave Atlanta and South Florida as the next best options. Not only would placing a team in one of those locations help balance out the league geographically, but the size of those markets in terms of television viewership -- which is quickly becoming the fourth pillar of expansion projects -- would be a benefit as well. "Clearly, for us to be an important professional major league in North America, you need to have valuable television deals that are driven by people who really are committed to watching games on television on a national basis," Garber said. "To do that you need to have more and more teams spread throughout the U.S. and Canada." But while MLS has been in discussions for some time with Arthur Blank, owner of the NFL's Atlanta Falcons, the stadium remains a stumbling block. In Miami, there is little if any momentum, as the lack of a suitable owner has halted any progress in that market. That leaves a city like St. Louis. An intense drive to bring a team to the Gateway City was spearheaded by Jeff Cooper, but an inability to bring enough deep-pocketed investors into the ownership group ultimately doomed that bid. Instead, Cooper launched AC St. Louis, a team that will compete this season in the USSF D2, the second tier of U.S. soccer. "I have a lot of respect for Jeff Cooper, and we're monitoring what he's doing with his club [AC St. Louis], though we're not in any ongoing discussions with him," Garber said. "I would say that if we're able to make progress over the next couple of years with a facility and perhaps with a strong investor group, then we would be very supportive of moving forward with more energy in St. Louis." That would appear to put the prospect of adding the 20th team far into the future, although history has shown that there are times when the expansion pieces can fall into place quickly. Garber will be hoping that is the case, and that it won't be too long before he's drinking expansion champagne once again.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

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