BY RIDGE MAHONEY, senior editor The future of MLS -- not its existence but rather its shape -- is still up in the air. A league press release issued Dec. 6 proclaimed a 5-year commitment to
funding the league but also included references to "evaluating several markets" with decisions to be reached by the end of the year. A conference call with the Board of Governors was conducted Dec.
5 and there are meetings scheduled for today and tomorrow at the sprawling ranch estate outside Denver of multi-club operator-investor -- and chief benefactor -- Phil Anschutz. There remains only a
slight chance the league won't drop at least one team. The axing of two is quite possible and there have been discussions about cutting as many as four teams and dropping the MLS lineup to eight,
which at least would put the league on equal footing with WUSA. According to several sources, the AEG-owned Rapids are tops on the chop list and one of the Florida teams -- and as of last night the
Fusion and Mutiny were neck-and-neck in the race to get it in the neck -- is second. Publicly, the Rapids claim to be at an impasse with stadium authorities at Invesco Field regarding a lease for
the team, which until last September played at Mile High Stadium. Privately, sources say that impasse has been imposed by the Rapids as an excuse for folding the team and the proposed lease terms
would be among the best in MLS. The team paid $20,000 per game to play at Mile High and received no share of concessions, parking, or other ancillary revenues. No MLS team except Columbus
receives a significant share of concessions, parking, etc. -- but most pay double or triple in rental fees. According to vice president of stadium operations Mac Freeman, the Rapids would receive a
percentage of such revenues at Invesco while paying a similar rental fee. "It's a phenomenal deal," said Freeman. "Frankly we thought they'd jump at it and not only did they not jump at it, we
haven't heard from them in quite some time." A source also said that AEG executives have advised Anschutz the Denver market may too tough to be cracked. Fusion operator-investor Ken Horowitz has
been playing catch-up since he paid $20 million for the team four seasons ago. He has lost nearly that sum again through renovations of Lockhart Stadium, losses of operating the Fusion and his share
of league-wide deficits. Horowitz is also reportedly further disenfranchised from his partners in the wake of the departure of Stuart Subotnick, the former MetroStars operator-investor who
initially brought Horowitz into MLS as a Metros' minority investor. One source said the Horowitz's share of the most recent cash call has been paid but that of one other operator-investor has not.
Discussions about AEG taking over Miami have been revived. The subject was talked about prior to AEG purchasing the MetroStars in mid-November. HOPE AGAINST HOPE
About the only chance for
all 12 teams to escape unscathed is a reversal in Denver and the Glazer family -- owner of the NFL Buccaneers -- jumping into the Tampa Bay operation before Christmas. An agreement to continue
funding the Dallas team until a soccer complex and stadium are built north of the city and resolution of the Horowitz situation would also help. League executives are unsure about what to do with
San Jose but dropping the league champion would be avoided if at all possible. With the bleeding league-run teams staunched, Anschutz and Co., could be motivated to hang on with a streamlined
league office. The image of an AEG-owned and operated stadium for the Galaxy in Southern California would also brighten the scene. AEG senior vice president of soccer operations Bill Peterson
refuted published reports that ground has been broken. Construction should begin by the middle of January. "We're still waiting official internal approval but everything is in place," said
Peterson. Target date for completion of the soccer stadium is May 2003.