So this is it, the day we've all been waiting for: MLS Expansion Team Application Deadline Day.
Yes, today is the day when every soccer writer in the US has another ready-made topic, sort of like those worthless "Preseason Review" deals they make us write.
Everybody will write a little blurb summarizing each cities' bid. Some guys will rank them from top to bottom. Others will give the "odds" of each city getting the green light whenever MLS gets around to making a decision.
And, just like those preseason articles, while everyone will confidently assure you that they have a handle on what's going to happen, it's all crap.
Nobody has the first clue.
Because as we all know, this is Major League Soccer, where business decisions often remind you of crop circles or those enormous South American prehistoric animal forms that can only be seen from high in the sky: how and why they got there, who really made them and what they mean is a complete mystery.
All that being said, and putting aside my well known personal admiration for moose dung and donuts, herewith is the definitive
I'M RIGHT AND THOSE OTHER GUYS ARE MORONS EXPANSION PREDICTOPALOOZA
First off, it should be noted that this process turns the application dynamic on it's head.
Previously, the deal was: "Get yourself a ridiculously rich guy and a solid, foolproof stadium plan and we'll let you into MLS."
(Seattle got a pass on the stadium part because if you're really, really rich the rules don't apply, but nobody else is going to get away with it)
This time though, rather than come to them when you have all your ducks in a row, they've told the prospects "Bring us the best you can come up with by October 15".
So some of these guys - a LOT of these guys - showed up at the door this week with "promises of public cooperation" or "encouraging indications from local officials" rather than an actual building.
All that aside, herewith are the candidates:
Arthur Blank is a guy that MLS has been "courting" for a long time. He owns the Falcons and an Arena Football League team (Georgia Force - extra credit if you knew that), and his AMB Group LLC has the kind of sports marketing experience that Checketts has and that MLS loves.
(MLS hates soccer guys, but they dig "sports executives")
More importantly, they have a geographical advantage: they're smack in the middle of the only area of the US that is devoid of an MLS team, the Southeast.
Blank's bid comes sans a stadium; they're saying they have positive vibes from the local pols and, given the record there's not much doubt that he can pull it off.
This one moves to the top of the list: if they're adding two teams in 2011, everybody else is now competing for the other one unless
edges them out.
There was much buzz, ado and kerfuffle yesterday when it was announced that Barcelona had entered a bid for an MLS team in Miami.
Most of the chatter missed the point, ie. that a Bolivian "entrepreneur" named Marcelo Claure, who lives in Miami, seems to be the prime mover behind the bid.
That makes it much more plausible since, frankly, I can't see the MLS Board of Governors being all that excited about going into business with a bunch of guys 5000 miles away who are mostly interested in promoting a foreign brand at the expense of their own.
What's more, Barcelona is not a natural fit in Florida, like Chivas was supposed to be in California or like Boca Juniors would be anywhere in the hemisphere. Barca in Miami is sort of like, say, Celtic in Minneapolis: there's really not much of a connection there.
Plus, that leaves MLS dealing with a partner which basically amounts to a board of directors, a notoriously shaky proposition. But with Claure as the lead rich guy in a group which includes Barca, it suddenly makes much more sense.
They reportedly have a deal to begin play in FIU's new stadium, but that's not likely to thrill the league; they say that it would only be a temporary arrangement while they built a SSS and the political atmosphere in Miami is very positive. There's not much doubt they could get it done.
If it were up to me, I'd take Atlanta and Miami, which spreads MLS from seas to shining sea, which is after all what it was intended to do, and send the other guys packing.
Unfortunately, that leaves out
Which is a real shame.
Not only are they the traditional heartland of American soccer and an area that would unquestionably support a team generously, but they've also been working at getting a team longer than anyone else, by far. Nobody deserves a shot more than they do.
And certainly, as Garber has commented, another Midwestern team would be great. The problem here is that they're slowly being priced out of the market.
Their situation is unique: they are ready, even eager, to build a soccer stadium. Not a problem. It's probably the only place in the country where you could actually put the word "soccer" on a ballot and get something passed.
The problem is that they keep coming up short in the rich guy department.
They put together a group, but MLS keeps telling them their pockets aren't deep enough. So they go back and sign up some more guys, but by the time they get back to New York with their new stack of money the price has gone up again.
Their window may have closed when Philly beat them to the last $30 million entry fee. Now it's $40 million at least, and it's shooting towards $50 million, and without a lead investor with money coming out of his ears, even if they can raise the entry fee MLS isn't going to be convinced that they can go the distance.
If you have to bet, sadly, put your money on USL1 to win.
Which brings us to
Don't let yourself get into one of those "It's NOT a second New York team, it's the FIRST New York team; the other one plays in New Jersey" arguments. It's pointless.
That being said, it just doesn't get any more New York than Queens and, more to the point, you can call the team in Harrison whatever you want but as long as you have to cross the river to get there, a whole bunch of New Yawkers ain't gonna go.
Fred Wilpon (New York Mets) and his people have long had plans on the books to build a soccer stadium on the Shea Stadium grounds, and what makes this all the more intriguing is that a soccer stadium right there could host a lot more than just MLS.
Name me a national team or a first division club anywhere on the planet Earth and I'll guarnatee that you can sell 20,000 seats in Queens, NY. Botswana vs. Bhopal? Dinamo Bucuresti vs. Panathinaikos? Toss a dart at a globe and bring in whoever it hits and they'll be scalping the tickets for $250 per by noon.
Forget the oft-repeated, to the point of absurdity "Garber's Long Held Desire for a (Second) New York Team". Nobody cares what Gerber wants. He doesn't run this league, he owners do, and this team just makes sense.
Or at least more sense than, say,
So somebody tell me what the deal is here.
For a couple of years now there's been a very, very rich guy with a bunch of very, very rich partners who has wanted an MLS team in the City of Sin.
It's been almost two years since he announced that he would write a check for $35 million "today" and hand it to MLS, and there's no doubt he has the bank balance.
What's more, he has the plans - and the money, and the land - to build a virtual soccer palace, a $500 million Taj Majal with a retractable roof, a hotel and, of course, a casino. They don't build an Orange Julius or a Preschool in LV without a casino.
Various MLS officials have been quoted repeatedly as saying that, unlike executives in other pro sports, Las Vegas "doesn't bother" them, that they see no negatives, it's just another city with "great, great fans" and they'd be delighted to have a team there.
So let's sum up:
Owner with more money than God: check. Plans and financing in place for an entirely suitable, even opulent, soccer stadium: check. High profile city: check. MLS approval: check.
So tell me: why isn't there already a team in Las Vegas? What's missing here? What do they lack?
Despite all the backpedaling about Paul Caligiuri's blabbermouth routine - anyone seen Paul lately, by the way? - maybe they figure they'll leave Vegas as the neo-Rochester: "If you guys don't shape up, we've got a city all ready to go".
(And for anyone who believes that nonsense about how a California businessman who wants to find something to build a Las Vegas casino around suddenly has decided to buy a minority ownership in a team in Ohio and will "move his family there" if he gets it, I have some oceanfront property in Wyoming I'd love to sell you.)
Whatever the deal, the league doesn't really seem to feel, despite their happy clucking, that Las Vegas is their kind of town. Mostly, I just think they feel the place does nothing to solve any of their geographical imperatives.
Yeah, yeah, they're a "great soccer city with a fine tradition". Big deal. At the moment, that and twenty bucks will buy you a three bedroom ranch home in Tucson.
But I digress.
They've got a guy willing to fork over $40 million for the fee, although since he's the son of the current US Secretary of the Treasury it may very well be that the money wil be delivered in bags marked "American Tax Dollars", but that's just an ugly rumor.
This bid has way too many "if's" most of them centered around the cash-strapped City of Portland building a new baseball park for the Portland Beavers and then remodeling PGE Park to suit soccer.
The Mayor has said he's highly in favor of an MLS team in Portland as long as it doesn't cost them anything, putting him a league with virtually every other city in the country.
Portland IS a good soccer town, and it would make a Jim Dandy MLS venue, no question. But it adds nothing to the league except the much-discussed "natural rivalry" with Seattle.
Unfortunately for Portland, if we're going to pick an expansion city based on Seattle needing a playmate and in doing so turn our backs on the entire southeastern US then let's put one in Baltimore for DC, Hartford for the Revs and -
Well, that topic brings us, finally, to my favorite country: America's Hat.
Back in the late 90's, Impact "owner" Joey Saputo was offered an MLS team for $10 million. He said it wasn't "worth the money" and that USL1 "is a better league".
So he went ahead and built a nice little USL1 stadium in the shadow of the monstrous financial debacle that was the Montreal Olympics and prepared to spend the remainder of his career sneering at MLS.
Then MLSE took a flier and put a team in Toronto which was an instant success, packing the seats and selling gewgaws at a heretofore unheard of rate.
All of a sudden, Saputo wasn't laughing any more.
Now he wants an MLS team of his own, and, seeing as how he's really not all that wealthy, he's found a partner in Liverpool hate icon George Gillett to help foot the bill.
For a long time now, Montreal has headed the list whenever people discussed expansion in Canada. But I believe the bloom is off the rose, and Saputo is going to be in USL1 for a long, long time.
Did you see the wonderful venue RSL just moved into? $110 million worth of amenities and atmosphere, a building that screams "big time" in every imaginable way, and a virtual cornucopia of high tech facilities which will be unequaled until 2010 when the $150 million RedBulls Arena opens. Reportedly it will knock our socks off and set the bar for Soccer Specific Stadiums even higher.
Into this mix comes Joey Saputo and his 13,000 seat, $15 million (Canadian) bare bones set of bleachers with a single cement block combination concession stand and restroom building which, they gleefullyassure us, can be expanded to 17,000 or 20,000 or 18,000 or some other number which seems to change by the week.
People think Columbus Crew stadium, the place that started it all, to be a little underbuilt and bare bones, but next to Stade Saputo it's Anfield. At this point, Saputo's place is simply substandard and there's nothing he can do about it.
And please don't tell me about the "great natural rivalry" with Toronto: a) Toronto already sells every seat for every game. A "rival" up the road won't do squat and b) their closest current rival, way, way off in Ohio, can't send 300 people to BMO without Toronto having to call in 100 riot police to get them out alive, and they could give two farts about Ohio.
Does MLS really need the "great great atmosphere" provided by twice-yearly 12 hour street riots?
You'll be reading a bunch of stuff about Montreal being "on top of the list". It says here Montreal is a dead issue.
Which brings us to
Let's be honest here: the main issue here isn't, as the idiots keep telling us, whether this city or that "will support soccer". We've got plenty of those.
With Canada, the issue is "What else can they bring to the table". Garber has been snooping around Canada for months now, and he ain't sampling the donuts. Rather, he's trying to gauge the level of long term corporate support the league can get up there.
That's going to be the key issue here: not whether they can sell out a stadium in this Canadian city or that, but whether major Canadian corporations are going to kick in major Canadian dollars.
Otherwise, if all MLS can count on is the same US based corporate partners that they already have, then they're better off putting any new teams south of the border.
So that's the real hurdle Canada has to leap now: selling seats is a given - what else you got?
That said, if you have to pick a Canadian city that may get in this time, I'd put my money on Vancouver.
I do wish they'd stop trying to jam Steve Nash down our throats: who the hell cares that he's a "booster" of soccer in Vancouver?
Beyond that, they do have some problems with their proposed waterfront stadium, mostly having to do with the extreme idiocy of the local politicians and various activists, but they do have a decent place to play in the meantime and everybody believes that if MLS comes in the place will get built.
I've read some astonishingly imbecilic comments from people who I thought were brighter, like Jen Chang, about how Canada ought to get BOTH slots this time around, but that's simply not going to happen. Take it to the bank.
But IF Garber has determined that the league can count on significant big-dollar corporate support in Canuckistan, then they'll probably get one of the new teams, and the odds are on Vancouver.
As opposed to
Eugene Melnyk is an opportunist who saw that Toronto was a rousing success and he thereupon suddenly found a deep and abiding love for soccer.
This bid is simply not to be taken seriously. It adds nothing to the league. Even if they sell every seat for every game for the next 20 years, nobody cares. You gotta bring something else, and they just don't.
THE BOTTOM LINE
My choices: Miami and Atlanta. They make this a truly coast-to-coast league and provide both the TV markets and geographical distribution which give MLS the best chance to make the next step.
My bets: Atlanta and Vancouver, with New York and Miami coming in 2014 or so.
* At 5 PM today MLS Toadie Mark Abbott announced the names of the groups who had met the application deadline and neither Las Vegas nor New York were included.