MLS in running to buy USL - Metro


Deal unlikely, but could change face of soccer in North America if completed

By Ben Rycroft

In what amounts to a Major League Soccer fan’s wet dream, the lower-level United Soccer Leagues has been put up for sale and two league sources have confirmed that MLS has inquired into purchasing it.

It’s long been debated, hypothesized and drooled over by those who follow the North American game: What would happen if MLS bought USL and created a promotion-relegation system similar to the one that exists in Europe?

It’s a question that will have to wait, as I’ve been told a group of investors have the inside track on buying the USL — and that the deal will ‘be coming to a conclusion very soon.’

When contacted Friday, the USL front office offered little information.

“We are a private business and as such it is not our intention to speak publicly to the media at this time,” said Tim Holt, executive vice president and COO of the USL.

Holt would not comment on the financial state of the league, but did confirm that the league is still actively seeking expansion markets and that Ottawa is on a list of 15 potential cities.

“In the short term we are okay with being a second tier in North America. But the league needs to start asking the question: What are we aspiring to be? A very strong, stable second division? Or are we interested in chasing first division?”

Chris Economides, senior director of USL-1, answered one of those questions last week when he told a Cleveland newspaper that only three to six of the league’s 11 teams are profitable. Economides also let it slip on Radio-Canada that Nike, the majority owner of USL, had put the team up for sale back in July.

Over the weekend, Vancouver Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi confirmed to me that several groups had expressed interest in the USL, but was cautious not to say much more, as the deal was reaching a critical point in negotiations.

“The USL owners have been in the loop the whole way since Nike put the league up for sale. There are a couple groups that are interested,” he said.

Two USL sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed MLS’s interest, but both said that it was looking less likely now, as MLS was not interested in the type of numbers Nike had asked for.

Their feeling was unless something dramatic happens, the third group, comprised of private investors, will be announced in the week ahead as the new owners of the USL.

It’s a move that will keep MLS — with its stranglehold on the North American market — honest, but one that effectively kills any dreams of promotion-relegation in the near future.

– Watch Ben Rycroft on the It’s Called Football show every Monday at metronews.ca; ben.rycroft@metronews.ca