MLS Expansion: OK Then, How About Portland?

Whenever the various cities (or, more correctly, "rich guys") who are candidates for Major League Soccer expansion teams get the chance to present their case, it seems like one of the main points they consider to be a compelling reason why they deserve the spot is almost always the same:

"Accepting our city would create a great rivalry with (fill in the team)"

Certainly no one, least of all yours truly, would deny for a moment that a good old fashioned grudge match/hate-a-thon with some other team is a compelling story that drums up some interest and gins up the fans.

Rivalries are the spice that livens up an often mundane season full of games that represent nothing more than an opportunity to put another W in a your favorite side's season record. It's hard to get everybody in LA all revved about a Saturday afternooon tilt against Toronto or turn Colorado fans on at the prospect of defeating those lousy bastards from Kansas City.

So, for example, when people are trying to make the case for Montreal coming into MLS, often the first thing they say is that it would create an "instant rivalry with Toronto" and some extraordinarily churlish person (blush) says "So what?" the only conclusion anyone North of the border can draw is that such an attitude is a product of latent xenophobic bias.

As amusing as I find the kind of people who react this way - it's a guilty pleasure, but a man's got a right to some fun - it is nevertheless, a legitimate question:

So what?

Furthermore, if creating rivalries is the magic bullet which will lead Major League Soccer to the promised land (man, now there's a mixed metaphor you can sink your teeth into) then BigSoccer ought to be one loud furious outcry in favor of St. Louis, whose inclusion would create not one but two "instant rivalries", one with the in-state Wizards and one with Chicago, an ingrained target of fear and loathing since time immemorial.

All of which brings us to the Portland Oregon MLS bid.

It's particularly interesting that you can read a lot of people clamoring for the "great rivalry" Portland would have with Seattle, a team which has yet to kick a ball in anger and which, according to them, is already selling so many tickets that they're going to have to put on a third shift at the printers to keep pace with the demand.

As I repeatedly said about Toronto: they sell the bloody place out for every game already; what exactly does a "rivalry" match get you as far as, you know, money and stuff? Sure it would be fun for the fans, and Toronto fans are passionate and vocal and deserve as much fun as anybody else, but when you get to the "it would be good for the league" argument, you lose me.

If the point is that a Titanic struggle between the two monsters of the Great White North would create a massive TV audience across the continent, well, someone is gonna have to show me the proof. I myself doubt that many people in Atlanta or Boise or Flagstaff are gonna skip the family weenie roast to park in front of the 50 inch plasma for that one. I just don't buy it.

So when the first thing everyone wants to say about Portland (and to an extent Vancouver) is that the big, big benefit to the league would be the "great, great rivalry" they'd have with Seattle, you'll forgive me if I'm underwhelmed. In a 15-and-more team league, a 30 game schedule means that we're talking, at most, one game in Seattle and one game in Portland. Forgive me if I don't see this as a compelling reason to stiff everybody else.

That's not to say that Portland isn't an intriguing prospect. In fact, they might be the perfect candidate. It's just that they're on much more solid ground when they argue their case on it's own merits and not in reference to some other city: Seattle isn't the reason to accept Portland, Portland is the reason to accept Portland.

The main strength of the Portland bid, besides the "we've got great fans, lot's of youth players, a soccer tradition, blah, blah, blah" sales pitch which is more or less true about every city in North America , is the requisite "super rich deep pockets owner guy", in this case Merritt Paulson.

He'll write a $40 million check today. Done deal. He'll send it over with candy and a stripper.

And even if he doesn't have the money, his father (the US Secretary of the Treasury) can send him some TARP money from what seems to amount to his personal slush fund.

Furthermore, Paulson is exactly the kind of guy the current owners love in a partner: the money to stick around for the long haul. If the league loses $5 million a year from now until Caroline Kennedy's Presidential inauguration he'll pony up the check with nary a whimper and still offer to pick up the lunch check. He's their kind of guy.

The problem here is the stadium.

About seven years ago the City of Portland backed $35 million in bonds for a renovation of PGE park for the AAA baseball Portland Beavers. The deal went south faster than you can say Fannie May and the City had to eat most of the $35 mil.

So here comes Paulson, asking for $40 million to RE-renovate PGE park to make it a soccer stadium AND another $45 million to build a new baseball stadium.

To say that the City Fathers aren't exactly jumping for joy over this opportunity to put their asses on the line again is a gross understatement.

It seems very much like they'd like to. All other things being equal, they'd probably pull the trigger tomorrow.

But all other things aren't equal at the moment, and this one will be a very hard sell to their constituents in "these tough economic times". The city is cutting personnel and services and is looking at a package of tax and fee increases to make up the difference. Going on the line for a stadium project so some rich guy can have a play toy isn't going to be an easy sell.

At the Don Garber Dog-and-Pony Show the other day, one of the city poobahs, who was intimately involved in the last PGE loan default, allowed as to how he'd go along with this one if Paulson was willing to personally guarantee the bonds.

Paulson talked about the wonderful employment opportunities a stadium would present, all the marvelous international soccer events that would come to Portland, all the tourist dollars, and the economic opportunity the place would generate.

What he didn't do was answer the question. Which, of course, was indeed an answer to the question.

Portland would be a good MLS city. Maybe even a great one.

But it's looking a lot like we're entering an era when the politicians are going to want more than a really slick presentation and a nice free lunch buffet before they'll be spending dime one of public money.

And as Commissioner garber told the Portland Pols, no stadium money, no MLS team. A decision is expected by March. The odds don't look all that good.

But it's always dangerous to underestimate the power of a really, really rich guy.