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

Major League Soccer

Philadelphia is set to become 16th franchise this week, begin play in 2010.

By Robert Wagman

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Monday, February 25, 2008) -- Philadelphia will become Major League Soccer's 16th franchise with the official announcement now tentatively set for Thursday. The way was cleared for the new team to begin MLS competition in 2010 when the Pennsylvania state legislature agreed to $47 million in state funding towards a proposed $115-million stadium in suburban Chester, Pa.

The Chester development, which will include a 20-000-seat soccer-specific stadium,.will be located next to the Commodore Barry Bridge, about 13 miles from downtown Philadelphia and easily accessible from the entire metropolitan area. In addition to a minimum of $80 million from team owners, the funding will include the state's $47 million and an additional $30 million from a partnership between the city of Chester and Delaware County.

The new franchise will be awarded to an ownership group headed by New Yorker Jay Sugarman, chief executive officer of iStar Financial. Others in the group include the owners of the Wilmington, Del.-based Buccini\Pollin Group and James Nevels, founder of the Swarthmore Group and chairman of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission.

The award, however, does little to bring clarity to the overall expansion situation in MLS with as many as eight cities still vying for what is likely to be the final two expansion franchises. The league will have 14 teams competing in 2008 with the second coming of the San Jose Earthquakes. The original Earthquakes, who were first named the Clash as a charter MLS member in 1996, moved to Houston and became the Dynamo in 2005..

Seattle will join the league next season.

Philadelphia appeared to be in head-to-head competition with St. Louis for the next new franchise and won because of the size of the Philadelphia television market and the strength (read wealth) of its ownership group. That would seem to make St. Louis the odds-on favorite for one of the two remaining expansion franchises, but maybe not.

St. Louis lawyer Jeff Cooper and a local group have formed St. Louis Soccer United, and convinced the Illinois suburban city of Collinsville to build a soccer stadium as part of a new development there. The Collinsville City Council has approved a tax-supported district in Eastport, where St. Louis Soccer United is proposing a $572 million, 400-acre soccer stadium and retail-residential complex. This would include a $30-35 million bond issue from the city to be repaid with revenue from sales taxes, concessions, parking fees, amusement, plus business and hotel-motel taxes. The residential development would have about 1,600 homes ranging from lofts and condos to single-family houses.

"We'd expect to be a part of that league (and) be the 17th team," Cooper told local media after it became clear that Philadelphia was going to become MLS's 16th club. "We expect that to happen sooner than later."

St. Louis, with its long soccer tradition, has always been a target for MLS and with a soccer stadium approved, it seems ready to acquire a team. Cooper's problem, however, has been putting together an ownership group that is satisfactory to the league. Cooper has told local media that he is in advanced negotiations with one or more additional investors that will make his group acceptable to MLS.

Even with an acceptable ownership group and being traditionally one of the hotbeds of soccer in this country, St. Louis might end up facing some tough competition.

The league clearly wants a team, as it puts it, "south of D.C," which means either in Atlanta or South Florida. That, in turn, given the league's previous failures in Fort Lauderdale and Tampa, means Miami. (MLS previously had the Miami Fusion from 1998-2001, but the team played in Fort Lauderdale.)

The city of Miami and Miami-Dade County Commission have agreed on financing for a 37,000-seat, retractable roof stadium for Major League Baseball's Florida Marlins on the site of the historic Orange Bowl, which is being torn down. Under the plan, Miami-Dade County will spend $347 million and the Marlins will contribute $155 million to a stadium scheduled to open in 2011.

Miami Mayor Manny Diaz says the Orange Bowl footprint has enough room to build a companion soccer stadium and if MLS will commit to a team there, he thinks he can make it happen. Further rumors coming out of Miami indicate that Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria would not be averse to becoming part of an MLS ownership group.

Meanwhile, word from the National Football League's Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank is that The Home Depot billionaire wants to bring an MLS expansion team to Atlanta. He is said to understand the need to build a soccer-specific stadium and he told the Atlanta Constitution: "We're out looking at stadium sites right now in a variety of places."

While construction is underway, a team could perhaps play at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium. The state-owned Georgia Dome, where the Falcons play, would not be suitable.

Other cities are potentially high on MLS' wish list. There is a new baseball stadium -- Citi Field -- being built for the New York Mets in Flushing, Queens, next to the current Shea Stadium, set to open in 2009. When Shea is razed, there would be plenty of room to build an adjoining soccer stadium to house an expansion team that would form a rivalry for the New York Red Bulls, whose new stadium in Harrison, N.J., will be ready in 2009 or 2010. The idea of a second team in New York, forming a rivalry like the Galaxy and Chivas USA have in Los Angeles, is exciting to many in MLS's hierarchy.

With Toronto FC having an extremely successful debut season in 2007, there is pressure to add an additional Canadian franchise. Toronto would like it to be in Montreal where a new 18,000-seat soccer facility, Stade Saputo, will open in 82 days for the Montreal Impact, which plays in the second-division United Soccer Leagues First Division (USL-1). It is expandable and there is an ownership group interest in getting a team.

Just as Toronto would like to see a natural rival in Montreal, the new MLS team in Seattle would love to see a Canadian rival up the road in Vancouver. There, the USL-1's Vancouver Whitecaps owner Greg Kerfoot is trying to put together a deal to build a downtown soccer stadium on the waterfront, much like in Toronto.

There are other cities interested in MLS. Portland, Ore., would like to remodel its downtown baseball-soccer stadium for an MLS team. There is fan interest in San Diego. Milwaukee would love to become a rival for the Chicago Fire.

Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correpondent.

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