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Major League Soccer

Salt Lake City making play to join league.

By Robert Wagman

(Sunday, June 27, 2004) -- If Major League Soccer is going to expand by an even number of teams next season, from the present 10 to 12, it looks like Salt Lake City might be in the right place at exactly the right time.

MLS currently has its teams divided into two divisions. Last year, MLS commissioner Don Garber announced the league's intention to expand by two teams in 2005 and perhaps add two more teams in either 2006 or 2007.

One 2005 expansion team will be Chivas USA, an extension of Mexican League power Chivas of Gaudalara. The team will almost certainly share Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., with the present MLS tenant, the Los Angeles Galaxy.

At one point, it looked as if Cleveland would be the second new franchise, but Bert Wolstein's bid faltered because he could not obtain a commitment of public funds from any municipality in the area. Wolstein's death last month put an end to expansion in Cleveland for at least a couple years.

When Cleveland fell through, the league began to work almost frantically with the A-League Seattle Sounders' general manager Adrian Hanauer to put together an investor group to bring MLS to the Pacific Northwest. They are close, but MLS sources say the complexity of putting together an ownership group which includes the National Football League's Seattle Seahawks and make Seahawks Stadium available is too great to get done for 2005. So if Seattle is to join MLS, it appears it would be 2006, at the earliest.

As recently as two weeks ago, it looked as if MLS might have to go with a single new team in 2005, but that would present a major logistical problem -- with an odd number of teams, one would have to sit out every weekend. Additionally, having one six-team division and one with five would present a disadvantage to the larger group. Two teams presumably would miss the playoffs from the six-team division while only one would fall short in the group of five.

MLS had been in talks with the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, outside Oklahoma City, about a possible team to play in its Wantland Stadium. Now, the university has given up because it could not put together an ownership group willing or able to come up with the $10 million expansion fee.

"We were very much in consideration by MLS for 2005 or 2006, but those chances have dimmed at this point," UCO president Dr. W. Roger Webb told local media. "We gave it a shot, did everything we could do and we've really lost nothing. Who knows what will happen in the future. We still have a good reputation in the league."

Then, along came Salt Lake City.

Dave Checketts the former president of both the National Basketball Association's Utah Jazz and New York Knicks, has been saying for the past several years he would like to bring MLS to Salt Lake City. However, with cities such as Houston, Philadelphia and Seattle on MLS's radar, the small Salt Lake market was far down on the list of the most desirable expansion prospects. Now, with MLS really needing a second expansion club for 2005, Checketts has stepped up with check in hand and said he can be ready to go almost immediately.

According to Salt Lake media reports, both Checketts and Eric Jacobsen, co-owner of the Pro Soccer League Utah Blitzz, have put together separate potential ownership groups, each willing to come up with the required $10 million expansion fee. Reportedly, Checketts' group put down a $1 million deposit for the rights to a team.

Currently, Checketts is saying little publicly. Jacobsen said he thought that the Blitzz, a team playing in a third-division league, and MLS had a relationship, but now he's not sure how deep that relationship goes. It's not clear if the two groups can be brought together.

As has been the case with a number of cities, a problem in Salt Lake will be finding an appropriate venue. The Blitzz has played at five different facilities in the past five years and is currently using the University of Utah's 45,000-seat Rice-Eccles Stadium. In size and configuration, it's not the kind of stadium that MLS would prefer, but it could serve as a temporary home for a Salt Lake franchise until a soccer-specific stadium could be built.

The Checketts group reportedly said it can get funding to build a stadium within five years.

Reportedly, Garber wants to make a definitive expansion announcement at the July 31 All-Star Game in Washington, D.C. A league official cautions this is still not a done deal for Salt Lake and the league could go with only one expansion team next season.

Still, the preference is two and right now Salt Lake might be the only viable option to join Chivas USA in 2005.

Robert Wagman is a SoccerTimes senior correspondent. E-mail Robert Wagman.

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