(Thursday, March 12, 2009) -- When Major League Soccer let it be known in January that it was full steam ahead with expansion and that the next two expansion "winners" would be announced by the end of this month, things seemed pretty cut and dried. That is no longer true.
In fact, MLS's seemingly orderly path towards 18 teams has turned very messy. Now, just days or weeks before the expected announcement, it's not even clear if that the league will identify both or only one of the next two teams.
MLS is now at 15 teams with the addition of Seattle this season. Next year, the number grows by one when Philadelphia joins the league after its new stadium is completed. The league wants to increase by two more teams by the 2011 season and, last year, announced a bidding process for those cities and prospective ownership groups who were interested.
At one point, not so very long ago -- say November when MLS Cup was played -- it looked almost sure that the next two expansion teams would be placed in Miami, Fla., and Montreal. The league wanted to give Toronto FC a Canadian rival and, for marketing reasons, wanted a team in the south, or at least south of D.C. United in the Nation's Capital.
Now, after a series of withdrawn or rejected applications, it looks like the only reasonably sure contender for one of the two new franchises is Vancouver in Canada. Also a possibility, after a successful city council vote on a stadium plan last night, is Portland, Ore. But questions there remain. Then too, the ownership group in St. Louis has just added Anheuser-Busch InBev as a member and that potentially could give it a big leg up. But the St. Louis situation remains more than a little up in the air.
One possible result of this is that only one 2011 expansion team will be announced -- Vancouver -- while the announcement of a second team could be postponed.
Things started to go wrong in this orderly expansion process when first Arthur Blank, owner of the National Football League's Atlanta Falcons and applicant for an MLS franchise, said he will not be able to take on a soccer team and stadium until at least 2013. Then the Montreal application was withdrawn or rejected -- depending on which version is to be believed -- when the submitted bid contended that Montreal was such an obvious choice that it shouldn't be charged the $40-million franchise fee.
The Montreal bidders indicated they were ready to spend $40 million on the new team, but wanted to commit that money to a stadium and on other expenses associated with getting started and building soccer in the community. MLS' quickly rejected that bid.
Then, things got even more complicated when the Miami bid from an ownership group headed by city resident Marcelo Claure, a Bolivian who owns Brightstar Communications, a multibillion-dollar company, in partnership with the Spanish powerhouse FC Barcelona, withdrew its offer, citing the economy and uncertainty about the current Miami soccer market.
So, almost by default, Vancouver jumped to the top of the list because it would add a second Canadian franchise which would be a natural rival for both neighboring Seattle and Toronto. The Vancouver bid from billionaire Greg Kerfoot, former Yahoo! Inc. president Jeff Mallett and National Basketball League star Steve Nash, includes a plan by which its team would play at B.C. Place (capacity: 60,000) until a proposed waterfront stadium project is approved in a complex political environment.
In recent days MLS insiders have said commissioner Don Garber is in "final negotiations" with Kerfoot. Some have taken that to mean the $40 million franchise fee is still being discussed -- perhaps the length of time the bidders will be allowed to complete payment.
All eyes are now on Portland where Merritt Paulson, owner of the second-division Timbers, has proposed a complicated two stadium deal. PGE Park, where Paulson's Portland Beavers AAA baseball team now play, would be converted to soccer facility, while a new baseball stadium would be built on land near the Rose Garden arena where the National Basketball League Trailblazers play.
The cost of the renovation of PGE Park is put at $33.7 million with the new baseball park costing $55.1 million. Paulson, is seeking more than $60 million in city-backed loans.
The complex deal cleared one major hurdle last night, sort of, when the Portland City Council approved the deal by a single vote. But the agreement wasn't approved until a last-minute change left a $15-million hole in the plan. Paulson, who already has committed $24 million of his own money, said he can't come up with the additional $15 million.
That's not all. Urban renewal money raised by the selling of bonds would be used to fund the plan and a new urban renewal district would have to be established to spend it on a new baseball park. Multnomah County officials say no new urban renewal districts can be started without the county's approval and they are not happy with the proposed plan. Nor are the Trailblazers pleased about the prospects of a baseball stadium being built on land they say has been promised them to build a new shopping and entertainment complex next to their arena.
If all this wasn't enough, Steve Janik, a lawyer working as special counsel for Portland, told the city's media that the council would not be obligated to any deal, even by approving the initial motion. The document before the council contains many contingencies, Janik said, and the council is not required to go forward if the finances cannot be worked out.
This leaves St. Louis, where Jeff Cooper and his St. Louis Soccer United organization announced that Anheuser-Busch InBev is giving the group the Anheuser-Busch Soccer Center in suburban Fenton. Moreover, ABIB would, in some form, be joining with the organization in its bid for an MLS team. With Busch one of the original sponsors of MLS, and with the potential of a soccer stadium in the near south suburbs, the prospects of St. Louis have taken a huge leap up in the expansion derby.
Unfortunately, the 32-acre Fenton site, which currently seats 6,200 in the main stadium and hosts four grass fields and two artificial surface ones, sits in a flood plain and it has always been assumed that a substantial stadium could not be constructed there. Cooper told the St. Louis Post Dispatch he thinks that enough fill-dirt could be added to make stadium construction a possibility, but such a move would not only be a challenge from an engineering standpoint, but very costly. Where will the money come?
Cooper has expressed confidence he can come up with the entry fee, but Garber, in the past, has said he was not sure the St. Louis group had sufficient wealth to survive bad economic conditions.