Whitecaps chances for MLS expansion continue to improve - The Vancouver Sun

Whitecaps chances for MLS expansion continue to improve

By Ian Walker, Vancouver Sun

More good news for the Vancouver Whitecaps and its bid for a Major League Soccer franchise. Commissioner Don Garber indicated on Tuesday the lack of approval for a soccer-specific stadium is a major stumbling block in Ottawa's plans to bring an expansion team to Canada's capital.

Garber made his comments from Ottawa, where he had just completed his final stop on a tour of the proposed expansion cities. MLS has previously met with representatives from the Whitecaps, Miami, Portland and St. Louis — the other four cities in the running for one of two $40-million franchises to be granted for the 2011 season.

"That's really the biggest hurdle that needs to be overcome for us to be able to approve an expansion team here," Garber told reporters. "[Ottawa] blew us away with their presentation and have shown a very strong understanding of the market, but no stadium is the hurdle to giving a franchise."

Eugene Melnyk — owner of the Ottawa Senators and the major backer of Ottawa's MLS bid — is currently in talks with government officials to secure both the land and partial funding required to build the proposed $110-million stadium near the NHL team's Scotiabank Place. Not helping Melnyk's chances is the city is also mulling a proposal from another group who has been granted a conditional Canadian Football League franchise. They too are looking for money to redevelop Lansdowne Park in the downtown core. Ottawa city council has gone on record to say it will approve only one or the other — possibly neither.

MLS was expected to announce the successful applicants sometime before its season opener between the expansion Seattle Sounders and on New York Red Bulls at Qwest Field on March 19, but Garber said that timeline is now flexible.

Originally, seven cities submitted an official bid by the league's Oct. 15 deadline, but Montreal and Atlanta have since dropped out of the running. Earlier this month, Garber put St. Louis on notice by saying he was concerned with its investor base.

The Whitecaps' storied soccer history, ownership’s commitment to growing the game in B.C. along with the team's impressive soccer infrastructure is second to none and distinguishes it from the remaining bids. Vancouver has an agreement in place to begin play out of a renovated BC Place Stadium beginning in 2011. The Whitecaps are still in discussions with the Port Authority regarding land for the construction of a 20,000-seat waterfront stadium, financed by owner Greg Kerfoot.

The Whitecaps continue to maintain that they are only concerning themselves with their bid and not reading anything into comments about any other team.

Launched in 1996, MLS has grown from a modest eight-team league that garnered little attention from the sports media to a 14-team operation in 2008. Toronto FC, the first Canadian club in MLS, joined the league in 2007. Seattle FC will start play as the league's 15th team this season.

Vancouver currently plays in the second-tier United Soccer Leagues' First Division, where they are the defending champions.

• The Whitecaps confirmed on Wednesday that they will play the Sounders in a closed-door scrimmage on Feb 22 at Qwest Field.

iwalker@vancouversun.com

With files from Canwest News Service
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