Aggressive expansion is risky, but shrewd

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?

5 comments about "Aggressive expansion is risky, but shrewd".
  1. David Milan, March 20, 2009 at 10:36 a.m.

    Hi Ridge, thanks for your articles.
    But, this time I don't agree with 2 of your points:
    1. B.C. Place - check the renovation plans, and you'll see how the retractable roof will make no more than about 25k seats avaialble. Better than Qwest Field with the big banner covering the upper ring.
    2. Blatter & the 18 teams per league - C'mon, the US is a continent, geographically speaking. Its unconceivable to constraint the league to 18 teams. The dream would be at least 24, 12 each Conference. And BTW, Premier, Serie A, Liga, they're all over that limit.

    Franco -

  2. David Sirias, March 20, 2009 at 11:38 a.m.

    Nice Ridge, but you omit something important. Yes, MLS wants deep pocket owners, but even more critical is MLS recognition of the importance of stadia atmosphere and fan committment. "Perception of success" on TV is just gravy. They wanted Toronto 2.0. But Toronto only happenerd because it was chokful of people who know the game, globally, and understand it and would see MLS for what it is , yet still love the local team , BECAUSE ITS THEIRS. All the Pacific Northwest entrants guarantee this quality. Soccer support has always had a visceral tribal nature to it. The light bulb went on and MLS realized-- the hard core soccer guys will be there through thick and thin, and frankly are more important than the soccer mom. Voila-- Inner city Portland and Vancouver here we come.

  3. Paul Bryant, March 21, 2009 at 3:35 p.m.

    The west/northwest section of the league appears to be complete. San Diego may be the only city left to place a franchise out west. The next couple of teams will emerge in the east/midwest. St. Louis, Montreal, Charlotte, Miami, Atlanta and possibly Baltimore are good bets. Kansas City may not survive unless it gets a new stadium.
    In some respect, the fallen stock market may help MLS. The "deep pockets" you refer to in your article may see MLS as a sounder long-term investment than owning stock.

  4. Bill Dunn, March 25, 2009 at 2:27 p.m.

    For the MLS to call the addition of 3 successful USL-1 franchises - Seattle, Vancouver, and now Portland - 'expansion' is disingenuous. What the MLS is engaging in is the selective promotion of USL-1 franchises with a certain profile: rich owners, loyal fans and an acceptable market-size.

  5. Tom Odonnell, April 27, 2009 at 12:34 p.m.

    I live in what I believe to be a soccer rich region of the US; Connecticut / Western Massachusetts. Does the Revolution own the Hartford market and therefore prevent an expansion team in Hartford. East Hartford has a great natural grass stadium that is sized appropriately for soccer venues, Rentschler Field 40k capacity as opposed to Gillette with 70k. Why doesn’t Hartford ever show up in the expansion list?
    I believe the population and soccer fan base could support it.

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