Atlanta backs off bid for MLS franchise - The Vancouver Sun

By Ian Walker

VANCOUVER — And then there was five. Or is it that four?

No, matter. The Vancouver Whitecaps’ hope of bringing a Major League Soccer franchise just got that much better. Count Atlanta as the second team in as many months to withdraw its bid for an MLS expansion team.

Lead investor Arthur Blank, who owns the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, said the harsh economic climate was the reason for the decision. It leaves Vancouver, Ottawa, Portland, Miami and St. Louis in the mix for one of two teams to begin play in 2011.

Maybe. That all depends on how you take the remarks of Don Garber. The MLS commissioner sounded less than impressed with the investor base of the Gateway to the West’s bid.

“We really want to be in St. Louis, but in order to be here, we have to be sure that every aspect of Jeff Cooper’s bid is solid and one of the weaknesses it has today is that Jeff has not been able to secure the investor who has very deep pockets,” Garber told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Now, that doesn’t sound good. Unless you’re Vancouver.

The Whitecaps ownership group is made up of an all-star cast including billionaire Greg Kerfoot, NBA icon Steve Nash, former Yahoo CEO Jeff Mallet and Silicon Valley businessman Steve Luczo.

It gets better.

“Lastly, should there be economic challenges for the league, we need to know that the group can have a couple of rocky years,” continued Garber, prior to the league’s Super Draft in St. Louis on Thursday.

“Right now, we’re not secure that his group can satisfy the objectives so the team will be successful. Now, other bids have other weaknesses.”

Like a stadium. It’s the one knock on Vancouver. And with an agreement in place to play out of a renovated B.C. Place, it’s more of a nick. The team’s storied soccer history, ownership’s commitment to growing the game in B.C. along with the impressive soccer infrastructure the team has in place is second to none in terms of the remaining bids.

Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi said he was surprised by Atlanta’s withdrawal, but is continuing to adopt the same approach he has since MLS chose to not retain Montreal’s bid in late November. The Impact were considered a front-runner for one of the two available spots in the lead up to and through the early part of the bid process.

“Ultimately, it really doesn’t alter much from our perspective,” said Lenarduzzi, who had just returned to Vancouver from St. Louis. “These kinds of developments for us — they’re not irrelevant — but they really don’t do much for us other than to make sure we stay the course. We’re not taking any comfort from it. There are still other cities that are interested and could easily host a MLS franchise. Interesting news, but it doesn’t change our approach all that much.”

Now as for Vancouver soccer fans — and Ottawa’s, Portland’s and Miami’s for that matter — one in two are pretty good odds.

“If I were a soccer fan — and to a certain extent I am a soccer fan, but I just happen to be in the middle of the evolution of our club — so if you’re looking at in from the outside in, it’s got to be encouraging,” said Lenarduzzi, who was quick to temper his remarks. “But I think we have to make sure we don’t get emotional about it. What’s going to matter is the strength of our bid and how we impact ourselves over the next two months.”

The league is expected to announce the successful candidate cities sometime prior to the kickoff to its 2009 season on March 19. The price-tag for an MLS expansion team is $40 million US.

Vancouver Sun

iwalker@vancouversun.com
© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun