MLS just a dream for Ottawa - The Ottawa Citizen

Richard Starnes

For the past couple of weeks, a mass of confusing news has been swirling around about Ottawa chasing a Major League Soccer franchise.

I know MLS commissioner Don Garber went to last week's all-star game in Toronto and told us two more teams will be added to his league in 2011.

I know he then spoke of Ottawa in the same breath as Montreal and Vancouver as possible candidates.

I know Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk re-iterated Thursday that soccer here is a "deep-rooted passion" and he was ready to be the cash behind a franchise.

Well, don't hold your breath. I'd love to be proved wrong, but this wonderful dream is no more than a pipedream.

All that is being floated here is a trial balloon that will need to stay afloat for years and years before this city can hope to become a genuine franchise hopeful.

MLS is adding Seattle next year, Philadelphia in 2010 and two more teams three years from now. Eight cities are interested in those two franchises. Canada has three -- Vancouver, Montreal and us. The U.S. has six -- Atlanta, Las Vegas, Miami, Portland, Oregon, St. Louis and a second team in New York.

It is impossible to believe more than one Canadian team will win a place and Ottawa is way, way behind both Montreal's Impact and Vancouver's Whitecaps.

Let's analyse what is needed and who can deliver here in Canada.

1. A place to play.

Montreal: Impact president Joey Saputo and his family put up a huge amount of cash to build a 13,000-seat soccer-specific stadium in the shadow of the Olympic stadium. It has been designed to expand to 20,000 or more.

Vancouver: The Whitecaps have been strangling in city red tape in their efforts to do a waterfront land deal for a stadium they would fund. So a couple of weeks ago, president Bob Lenarduzzi revealed the club was ready to join in the renovation of B.C. Place -- with some soccer-specific aspects -- so it could play there as an MLS club.

Ottawa: We have nowhere for any pro team to play, let alone MLS. There are hints of a Lansdowne Park rebuild incorporating a soccer facility. But it's only vague hints. Besides, it would take years.

2. Professional reputation.

Montreal: Having qualified to represent Canada in the CONCACAF Champion's League finals ahead of Toronto FC, the Impact can claim to be the best pro team in the country. It fills Saputo Stadium.

Vancouver: Going back to NASL days, the Whitecaps have always drawn solid support and, like the Impact, they are among the strongest clubs in the United Soccer League, which sits a little behind MLS as a pro league.

Ottawa: Who knows? We don't have a pro team. All we can point to is last year's U-20 World Cup during which close to 25,000 people attended each of six games at Lansdowne Park -- before the unsafe half of the South Stands were demolished. I should point out that tickets were probably three times cheaper than tickets to any MLS game.

3. Backing.

Montreal: Joey Saputo has backed the Impact's growth but would probably need a financial partner to fund an expansion that will require a $40-million U.S. franchise fee and major money to expand the stadium. There are strong suggestions that Montreal Canadiens owner George Gillett -- who shares ownership of the Premier League's Liverpool -- will join Saputo in any MLS bid.

Vancouver: Owner Greg Kerfoot is an equally deep-pocketed soccer lover. He has spent about $6 million on a Whitecaps training facility at Simon Fraser University and has backed Canada's women's team currently preparing for the Olympics to the tune of $4 million. In the past week, he received a huge boost when Victoria-born multimillion-dollar NBA star Steve Nash stepped forward as part of the Whitecaps ownership team as it made a formal bid for an MLS franchise. Nash's brother Martin plays for the Whitecaps.

Ottawa: Melnyk is the money behind a team planning a submission to MLS. He talks about plans to work closely with government and the local soccer community. However, there's no news as to where the team would play or who would pay for the required stadium.

Does that add up to no contest? Vancouver and Montreal are at the head of the race, Ottawa is trailing badly.

Don't get the impression I would not be the first to champion a pro team in our city. I'd love it. But it will be many years before we can climb up the ladder of franchise contenders.

Besides, I have a very serious problem with too much expansion -- some are talking 24 MLS teams in the end.

Where are the players going to appear from?

Right now, more than half of a typical MLS roster is domestic, coming from youth, academy and college ranks. Don't get me wrong, that is a wonderful way up the soccer tree for aspiring youngsters and something we need for the game to have real sporting impact in Canada.

But if you add as many as 10 more teams, think how much the talent will be watered down. The pool is far, far too shallow.

Also, don't forget that some of the very best young ones will abandon North America and set sail for Europe where they can earn 10 times as much and challenge themselves in a far stronger playing environment.

Now that's a danger signal MLS should not ignore.

Richard Starnes' Beautiful Game column appears Saturdays. Send comments and suggestions to rstarnes@thecitizen.canwest.com or sportsletters@thecitizen.canwest.com. For daily soccer news, go to his blog at ottawacitizen.com.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2008