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Philadelphia, St. Louis loom as favorites as league nears adding 16th franchise.

By Robert Wagman

(Sunday, December 23, 2007) -- Major League Soccer hopes to announce the awarding of a 16th franchise next month and it appears clear the choice will either be Philadelphia or St. Louis.

MLS played with 13 teams in 2007, an odd number which left at least one team idle each weekend. San Jose will rejoin the league in 2008 and even though the team will be called the Earthquakes, it will be an expansion franchise owned by a group headed by investor-operators Lew Wolff and John Fisher.

Wolff is co-owner\managing partner of Major League Baseball's Oakland Athletics. The soccer team will play in a temporary setting, Santa Clara University's Buck Shaw Stadium, for two seasons, while a new stadium is built as part of a large development adjacent to the San Jose airport.

MLS has already announced that Seattle will join the league for the 2009 season with an ownership group that includes Hollywood producer\executive Joe Roth, Adrian Hanauer, managing partner of the second-division Seattle Sounders; actor Drew Carey and Microsoft founder Paul Allen's Vulcan Sports and Entertainment. VSE owns the National Football League's Seattle Seahawks and its venue Qwest Field, where the MLS club will play.

VSE also owns the National Basketball Association's Portland Trail Blazers and their arena, the Rose Garden.

MLS wants to get to 16 teams by 2010 and is in active negotiations with a number of communities and potential ownership groups, but the two that are furthest along are Philadelphia and St. Louis. Both are markets MLS has long coveted and it is likely whichever ownership\stadium situation works itself out first will earn the franchise.

The oddity of the current situation is that the two are in completely opposite situations. Philadelphia has an ownership group with deep pockets, but has not finalized a stadium deal. St. Louis has a stadium waiting to be built, but the organizers have not yet put together an ownership group that meets MLS standards.

In Philadelphia, an ownership group which includes Jay Sugarman, chief executive officer of the New York-based iStar Financial; James Nevels, a Swarthmore, Pa., businessman; Wilmington, Del., developers, brothers Christopher Buccini, and Robert Buccini, and David Pollin; and lawyer William Doran are ready to ante up a $30 million expansion fee, plus their share of building a new stadium.

For more than a year, the ownership group and MLS has been in intense negotiations to build a $115-million soccer-specific stadium that would sit at the foot of the Commodore Barry Bridge in Pennsylvania's Delaware County. The county pledged $30 million to the project, but the holdup is $45 million in state funds, something supported by Governor Ed Rendell, but not yet approved by the state legislature.

The Pennsylvania legislature was expected to act before it adjourned for the holidays, but did not. Now, it is said a decision won't come before mid-January and possibly not until the end of the month.

In St. Louis, local lawyer Jeff Cooper, who is leading a still forming ownership group, has persuaded the Illinois suburb of Collinsville to build a new soccer complex, including a stadium for an MLS team. The public funding for the project is essentially in place, but Cooper is still struggling to put together his final ownership group.

At last month's MLS Cup, Garber, in effect, said if the stadium deal is approved by the Pennsylvania legislature, Philadelphia will get the 16th franchise. "Philadelphia is very close," Garber said. "It's at the finish line. If (the funding) happens, then Philadelphia has the inside track. If it doesn't happen, Philadelphia could go way down the list.

"We've spent the last year in negotiations with the city of Chester and Delaware County ,and the state of Pennsylvania, trying to put together a package for a stadium that would sit on the waterfront in Chester. If the deal falls apart, we have no sense as to when it could come back together. It certainly puts (Philadelphia) much further down."

If Philadelphia fails and Cooper in St. Louis nails down an acceptable ownership group, MLS will find its way to a market it has wanted to be in MLS since the league was formed in 1996. "Our near-term goal is to have 16 teams in this league, with an announcement on that 16th team by the end of the year," Garber said. "If we are unable to finalize that 16th team by Jan. 31, 2008, then we will likely make a decision to play with 15 teams in 2009."

What then? MLS would like to grow to 18 teams, the maximum allowed by world governing body FIFA for first-division leagues around the world. Garber rattled off a list of cities that would be in the running, obviously led by the loser of the St. Louis-Philadelphia face-off.

In alphabetical order, Garber said cities currently in the running are Atlanta, Las Vegas, Miami, Fla.; Montreal, a second team in the New York market, Portland, Ore., and Vancouver.

SoccerTimes was told off-the-record by an MLS official that the top candidate would be New York City with a soccer-specific stadium built adjacent to Citi Field, the Mets' new stadium, set to open next to Shea Stadium in Flushing, Queens, in 2009. The league envisions a bitter rivalry between this club and the New York Red Bulls, who are based in New Jersey. League sources admitted, however, getting this done would be hugely complicated and largely dependent on the development of Citi Field.

Beyond this, a number of the potential deals could be positive for MLS. The league believes it badly needs an East Coast franchise south of Washington, D.C., which would mean either Atlanta or Miami. Arthur Blank, owner of the NFL's Atlanta Falcons, is reportedly ready to get on board and that would be a big "get" for the league.

On Tuesday, Miami Dade County officials expressed their willingness to put $50 million toward a soccer stadium, as part of a massive redevelopment project, which would also include a new stadium for baseball's Florida Marlins, where the Orange Bowl today stands.

A second team in Canada would be a huge boost for the league, so Montreal and Vancouver could be attractive. Both cities currently have teams in the second-tier United Soccer Leagues First Division and owners who would undoubtedly like to join MLS, but both have stadium issues. Greg Kerfoot, owner of the Vancouver Whitecaps, is trying to get approval to build a soccer stadium on public land downtown. If he gets it, his effort to join MLS would get a huge lift.

"We don't want to expand for expansion's sake," Garber said. "We're not in any rush to expand. We're going to wait for the right plan, right market, right owners and the right facility."

Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correpondent.

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