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Assessing the Serious Seven
by Ridge Mahoney, October 17th, 2008 10AM

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Buried amidst the furor over the MLS expansion bids submitted, and those that were not, prior to the Tuesday deadline is some clever wording regarding when the next phase of expansion will take place.

After months of "2011" appearing on every press release and announcement regarding the timeline, no such mention is included in the official announcement regarding the seven bids submitted.

Instead, the next round of expansion is set for "the next few years," and while a "few" commonly means three, and 2011 is three years away, there's no guarantee that expansion by two teams in 2011 is going to happen.

The deadline passed without a bid from the New York Mets. MLS officials have adamantly insisted a second New York team is an attractive option - after all, does anyone really believe Thierry Henry wants to play on artificial turf in Seattle? -- and will continue to do even as they evaluate the bids submitted. Henry may be too old by then, but at some point, some superstar from somewhere, will be lured to the Big Apple, and that doesn't mean Harrison, N.J. Bet on it.

(This isn't to say Red Bull won't sign a big name to jack up the excitement and the crowds when Red Bull Arena opens up. But if MLS wants a superstar in New York it needs a team in New York, as in the city. Ronaldinho doesn't do Joisey, you know what I'm saying? The Knicks play in the Garden, not the Garden State.)

Also declining to submit a bid is the Las Vegas group fronted by Mark Noorzai and thank God for that. Either the group wants to buy a piece of the Crew and not move it to Vegas, or it and another group that are affiliated yet separate want to buy a piece of the Crew as well as an expansion team in Vegas and build a vast indoor complex including a stadium, or it and the unaffiliated but not independent group want to purchase the Crew and move it to Vegas to play in a vast indoor complex including a stadium, or it's playing a shell game of interlocking partnerships and overlapping interests by which items dribble out such as this (from the Columbus Dispatch):

"Dave Whinham, president of The Team: Sports, Entertainment, Media, said California businessman Mark Noorzai is leading the efforts of both groups. The group in pursuit of the Crew is known as Crew Sports Holdings LLC. Its mission, Whinham said, is 'to shepherd, over time, the transition to local ownership and management of the Crew.'"

Noorzai and "a couple" of those interested in the Crew also are involved with the Las Vegas Sports and Entertainment Group, The Team spokesman Stephen Evans said, but the Crew group also includes some local investors, and more locals are being pursued.

The only investors in Crew Sports Holdings who have been publicly identified are Noorzai and banker Jonathan Bloch. Whinham indicated that Noorzai, of Santa Barbara, Calif., would move his family to Columbus if the deal goes through."

As the potential business partners in Montreal might say, "Eh?"

There's no definite timeline for when the league will announce its expansion plans, either. "An announcement regarding which markets will receive the next two expansion clubs will take place during the fourth quarter of 2008 or the first quarter of 2009," is vague enough and long enough for the league to ponder its next move.

The dizzying pace of expansion is worrying, but the stone-cold facts are that the past few expansion additions are far superior propositions than some of the existing ones. Deep pockets, viable stadium options, and attractive demographics in Toronto FC and Seattle and Philadelphia pushed them to the forefront, and kudos to the Philly group for insisting on natural grass rather than the synthetic stuff in the other two facilities.

None of the Serious Seven will find equaling those groups a simple task. Of the past six additions (counting Real Salt Lake and San Jose), only Chivas USA is lagging. That's a good strike rate. Here's a rundown on the applicants:

MONTREAL. If Canadian mogul George Gillett or one of his partners can step up as the lead investor, Montreal looks much stronger than it did with just the Saputo family on board. Otherwise, MLS officials will look somewhere else. Great stadium, good USL team. Chances: Fair.

VANCOUVER: There's oodles of money in Vancouver, and by allowing Seattle to play in Quest Field MLS has laid the groundwork for matches at B.C. Place, a 60,000-seat facility that needs some renovation but might be a suitable stopgap, IF the waterfront stadium project awakes from hibernation. The star power of NBA star Steve Nash is irresistible. Chances: Good.

PORTLAND: Some MLS executives are leery of renovating PG&E Park in Portland, and backer Merritt Paulson says he'll pony up the expansion fee ($40 million, supposedly) but needs partners and public money to run the team, overhaul the stadium, and also build a suburban baseball facility for the minor-league team that currently plays there. That's a lot of pieces to fall into place for a very promising market. But, think rivalry with Seattle. Chances: Fair.

ST. LOUIS needs money and has needed it for years. At least it has political backing for a stadium project. But is the project or market so flawed the money hasn't been forthcoming? Chances: Grim.

ATLANTA has NFL Falcons owner Arthur Blank in the spotlight and former Columbus Crew general manager Jim Smith, the Falcons' vice president of marketing, working behind the scenes. Or not. Chances: Slim.

OTTAWA? NHL Senators owner Eugene Melnyk has clout but he's not Dave Checketts, who in four years gave birth to Real Salt Lake and moved it into a spectacular stadium. Top that! Chances: Miniscule.

MIAMI. Barcelona has joined forces with businessman Marcelo Claure, a Miami resident who is the CEO of Brightstar Corporation, a wireless company, and the owner of FC Bolivar. This can't be a rehash of the Chivas USA model, with U.S.-based partner Antonio Cue running the show and drawing lousy crowds for Guadalajara owner Jorge Vergara, and neither can it be ex-Fusion owner Ken Horowitz revisited. But there's a deal in place to play at FIU, so there's hope. Chances: Fair.



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