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Ottawa? Not for my money
by Ridge Mahoney, September 19th, 2008 11:01AM
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Pardon me if I can't get excited over Ottawa's bid to join MLS. And it's nothing against Canada, for if I had the power and all the pieces fell into place, I'd go with Vancouver along with Portland in the next round.

There just seem to be too many more viable options, even though each prospective city is facing large obstacles that render the likelihood that one, let alone, two can ramp up in time for the 2011 season, rather remote.

Still, as we've seen in Toronto and Philly and Seattle and Salt Lake City, inertia is a powerful force. Once a wealthy ownership group, government backing, and proper stadium project start moving together in the same direction, stopping those convergent masses is mighty difficult. And in each prospective city, with a few exceptions, at least two of the pieces are in place.

Vancouver has money and a stadium plan but the government green-light has winked out, for now.

Montreal already has a stadium and a gung-ho government but really needs a lead investor, as MLS doesn't believe the Saputo family is flush enough.

Portland has a well-heeled investor and a great soccer following, but upgrading PG&E Park at any cost still leaves MLS with a dressed-up old building, albeit one in a superb location downtown and actually more accessible near the actual downtown than is BMO Field in Toronto.

St. Louis can't just seem to line up the money men and attorney Jeff Cooper may have to take his best shot with the WPS team.

Joining forces in New York with the Mets? That's the big-time. And know ye right now that certain MLS execs will stand on their heads to get a team in the Big Apple.

Methinks, though, that Ottawa, and maybe another city or two are being used as pawns by MLS, much as the Oklahoma cities of Edmond and Tulsa were exploited earlier in this decade, either as expansion markets or the possible destination of a moved team, with Kansas City the most obvious.

Now the Wizards are backed by wealthy guys and a stadium project is steaming along. How the times have changed.

There are certainly bigger players in Ottawa than there were in the Panhandle State: bidder Eugene Melnyk owns the NHL Ottawa Senators and a lot of other enterprises. An MLS-NHL partnership (Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment) has taken over in Toronto, so that combination has been proven to work.

Melynk has yet, however, to submit any written documentation of his proposal to build a 30,000-seat stadium.

Barcelona in Miami? Yawn. Remember a while back when Club America, which preened and swooned and tittered when wooed by MLS years ago and then gave back the engagement ring, re-emerged from oblivion and re-stated its interest? Re-rack that tape and play it again.

You can never say never, but suppose, just suppose, the Barcelona "interest" is similar to that expressed in 2005 by Ajax when it wanted to join forces with the Quakes, MLS version 1.0. Some folks, including the good people at Soccer Silicon Valley, believed Ajax was ready to snap up the team; in truth, Ajax wanted its colors and brand attached to American soccer and the lucrative merchandise and camp industry, and not much else.

Yet Barcelona president Joan Laporta has met numerous times with MLS officials and is certainly acutely aware of what his club can do here. The Chivas USA model isn't working so well in Southern California, but a BarcAmerica dynamic can't possibly run into the same deep-rooted roadblocks faced by those peddling a watered-down version of the most beloved Mexican club. A tie-in to one of the world's most powerful clubs surely can attract local -- or at least, domestic -- investment, but how much?

The pessimist in me would prefer MLS do more to strengthen its national identity and also ensure that existing teams take root in their markets. Colorado, for one. But if entrepreneur Stan Kroenke is happy with Dick's Sporting Goods Park half-empty for most games, hey, it's all good.

And Real Salt Lake is poised to prove that in the right market, they will come if you build it. Heck, those people have been coming to Rice-Eccles the past four years, during which time they put up with some pretty poor stuff. I'm not convinced the same love will shower down from the stands at Red Bull ArenaPark, but I'd gladly be mistaken. At least the economics make more sense than the money pit that is the Meadowlands.

MLS officials don't seem concerned about their rapid rate of expansion, which helped doom the NASL. A rather bleak economic outlook might slow down the MLS Express, though the Forbes articles that ran earlier this week shot the league to unparalleled heights in the business world.

If the Ottawa bid somehow gathers great momentum, anything can happen. Yet it's more likely that in this race, Ottawa is a rabbit sent out to speed up the pace, not one of the contenders.



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