The only expansion choice that wouldn't involve a gamble in these economic times would be to not to expand at all, but the MLS Board of Governors and the league's Expansion Committee are forging ahead.
By selecting Portland as its second expansion team for the 2011 season and 18th member, MLS officials have reiterated their belief in their league and sport as a growth industry. They've also added another gazillionaire, or rather several of them, to the league's list of investors, as Merritt Paulson and his father, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, are backing the Portland bid.
The Vancouver lineup - software moguls Greg Kerfoot, Steve Luzco and Jeff Mallett and NBA star Steve Nash - is well-heeled as well. Their team will play in a cavernous B.C. Place (capacity 60,000) until, and if, a waterfront stadium proposal is revived, which contradicts somewhat the MLS checklist for expansion candidates.
The league wants viable stadiums in attractive markets, yes, but what it can't do without are very committed, very rich investors. There are pitfalls inherent in so rapid a rate of expansion, yet by adding three teams, including 2009 debutant Seattle, in as many years MLS has filled a vacuum left when the NASL teams departed in the 1980s. It has also ramped up its intensity by reviving a few of the most passionate rivalries from that era.
Players from those three teams will tell of memorable moments when the Timbers, Whitecaps and Sounders clashed on the fields. So, too, will the fans, as did two men wearing NASL Sounders gear told me when I attended a U.S. qualifier in Portland 12 years ago.
Whenever they drove down for a Timbers-Sounders game, they had to be careful where they parked their car near what was then called Civic Stadium near downtown. Roving gangs of Portland fans would look for cars with Washington license plates, and fiendishly slap Timbers bumper stickers all over the windshield and rear window.
Since games were often played at night, their quandary was whether to find a place to stay, or scrape enough of the windshield clean to drive back in the dark, and often in the rain. More than once, they said, they trundled back up Interstate 5: driver sticking his head out his window and the front-seat passenger doing the same so they could see enough of the road to stay on it.
That's probably not what commissioner Don Garber and other league officials specifically had in mind when they pondered whether the Northwest can support one, two, or three teams, but a light bulb went off over their heads last year when 2,000 Toronto fans made the trek to Columbus and swathed sections of the Crew's black-and-gold facility with red.
(Remember how infuriated Fire fans had been in 2007 when they couldn't get more than a few hundred tickets for a game at BMO Field? They took it very personally yet eventually had to accept the fact there weren't many tickets available due to the rabid support of TFC's Red Army.)
The wealth of Kerfoot and his partners drove MLS to regard Vancouver highly as an expansion option several years ago but a political logjam regarding the waterfront project stalled their ambitions as other bidders received approval. It took Dave Checketts only four seasons to get his Rio Tinto Stadium up and running, and Toronto's role as a host of the FIFA U-20 World Cup plus the power of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment.
Yet in the past 18 months several pieces fell into place: Vancouver, which was awarded the 2010 Winter Olympics in 2003, announced plans for an extensive renovation of B.C. Place as part of the bid; Toronto opened to raucous sellout crowds, and Seattle fans began snapping up season tickets at a remarkable rate within days of the official announcement in September 2007.
In the case of Portland and the Paulsons, several obstacles stood in their way. Despite hosting that World Cup qualifier and several 1999 Women's World Cup matches, Civic Stadium (now PG&E Park) was a baseball facility, and an old one at that. The city took a massive loss when it was renovated in 2003 and city officials objected to any more expenditure of public monies. Something also had to be done with the minor-league baseball team that called it home.
Unlike the teams in Toronto (MLS&E), San Jose (Oakland A's) and Seattle (Seahawks, Trailblazers), the Paulsons didn't have a powerful sports organization behind them. But they did own both local teams involved in the machinations, the USL-1 Timbers and Triple-A Beavers, which simplified somewhat the complex logistics of juggling two teams and two facilities.
Perhaps the riskiest development of the past few days is Garber proclaiming MLS will add two more teams in 2012. A source says 2013 is more likely, but either scenario is a great leap.
Disregard FIFA president Sepp Blatter's proclamation that top divisions be topped at 18 teams; such a decree can't be enforced, and to be blunt, MLS executives and investors have far more to worry about than what emanates from FIFA headquarters in Zurich.
This year, next year and the year after that, the future of American soccer is in the Northwest. A year or two later, who knows?