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MLS's hot expansion race
by Ridge Mahoney, February 1st, 2008 6:45AM

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[MLS WATCH] Three major contests are each down to two candidates, but in this case, soccer has the edge over politics. The Republicans have Mitt Romney and John McCain. The Democrats have Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. MLS has Philadelphia and St. Louis. Unless the candidates bury their differences and team up as running mates - not bloody likely! - somebody has to lose out. Unlike the political parties, MLS can play its candidates against each other and still pick both of them, eventually.

More than a year of cajoling and haggling and prodding has moved Philly to within touching distance of being awarded a team, and St. Louis is gaining momentum.

Yet neither looks likely for 2009, which means once again the league is destined to play with an odd number of teams (15), and might again in 2010 (17), unless a third city - Miami, Portland? - comes aboard as well. It also means the league will need dozens of players in short order.

A stadium in Chester, located 13 miles east of downtown Philadelphia, is being planned as a centerpiece for a $400 million project adjacent to the Delaware River that will include the usual mix of housing, and retail and office space.

Cost of a 20,000-seat stadium - and a supermarket -- is estimated at $115 million. Approval yesterday by the Pennsylvania state legislature of a $47 million state funding package and a prior commitment from Delaware County officials for $30 million leaves the balance to be funded by an investor group that lists developers from the Buccini/Pollin Group, Inc., as well as iStar Financial chief executive Jay Sugarman, Swarthmore Group chairman Jim Nevels, and Philadelphia lawyer William Doran.

The Philadelphia investor group has been in place for some time. Finding a stadium location and devising a funding plan had stymied the group's efforts for nearly two years.

In St. Louis, attorney Jeff Cooper and his partners formed St. Louis Soccer United to negotiate agreements with the nearby city of Collinsville, but Cooper's group lacks a lead investor, a la entertainment mogul Joe Roth in Seattle.

The Collinsville City Council approved a tax increment financing (TIF) plan Monday that would contribute $30 million to $35 million in bond revenues toward an extensive development to include a stadium, eight fields, retail and office space (of course), two hotels (!), and more than 1,000 residential units.

Adding good markets is part and parcel of growing a stronger and better league. MLS needs ambitious ownership groups, a greater national TV footprint, a larger core of passionate fans, etc. It also needs continual upgrading of the product and in this regard expansion cuts back across the grain.

The problem of absorbing more 28-man rosters is a vexing one. Even if Philly comes aboard in 2010, and St. Louis plus another team arrives in 2011, that would be three new teams in two years, and four in three years, including Seattle in 2009.

Given the added investment in the league, MLS cannot retain the 18-man regular roster much longer, even though expansion will ratchet up demand. One coach suggested keeping rosters at 28 players, but using 20 or 22 spots for full-time players on regular contracts, and cutting down on so-called developmental slots and dirt-cheap salaries.

Players' union leader Bob Foose doesn't object to additional slots for international imports and Designated Players, but wants such changes accompanied by more regular roster spots and a larger salary cap.

Foose points out, rightly, that the MLSPU represents all league players, not just domestic ones. More money across the board is what the league and union should strive to implement.

Pitfalls abound in expansion, only one of which is dilution of product. There's no magic number of teams or perfect mix of markets. But MLS must get bigger as well as better, and if to do so, players drop down a notch on the priority list short-term, so be it.

As in politics, compromises must be made.



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