MLS moved one step closer to the outright naming of Montreal and Vancouver as their two newest franchises today by officially announcing the league's intent to expand by two more teams in 2011.
Those two new teams will be in Canada according to multiple sources in and around the league, who are already openly discussing the ways and means of welcoming the USL Montreal Impact and the Vancouver Whitecaps into the league.
The ownership group in Montreal will include Liverpool co-owner George Gillett Jr. with current Impact owner Joey Saputo. Vancouver's bid is led by NBA star Steve Nash and current Whitecaps owner Greg Kerfoot.
There are some wrinkles with bringing two Canadian teams into MLS: TV rights holders ESPN and CBC will have to work out an arrangement to share games across the border (Fox Soccer Channel's affiliate, Fox Sports World, airs their weekly MLS matches in Canada).
Currently, the Thursday night ESPN telecast cannot be seen in Canada. This is complicated by the fact that TSN, which is ESPN's affiliate in Canada, recently inked the CFL to a multi-year deal that includes Thursday night games. And, the Montreal Impact has an existing deal with French-language television broadcaster SRC (Societe Radio Canada) that usually airs on Sunday afternoon.
Also, there is some question whether or not FIFA, which has sent mixed signals over cross-border pollination, might step in to quash the deal. Currently, a number of teams play outside their "home" country, notably Vaduz of Lichtenstein (Switzerland) and Cardiff City (England). However, since Canadian teams are and have been a fixture in North American professional sports, this is not seen as an enormous stumbling block.
Finally — and sensibly — MLS wants to ensure that any new team entering the league does so with its own stadium and plenty of advance notice with which to solidify the team structure.
American fans hoping for a team in their city may have to wait some time. While the league is healthy overall, there is concern over the softness shown in Kansas City and Columbus, as well as the disappointing box offices in Dallas and Denver. And, bluntly, Toronto has raised the bar. MLS team execs meeting this week were treated to a show-and-tell by MLSE execs intended to help shake up some limp sales teams.
While St. Louis is a perennial topic of conversation, the fact remains that there is no solid ownership group in place. Portland is a dark horse and while Atlanta, Miami and Las Vegas have been bandied around, no insiders seriously rate their chances.
That leaves New York, where Mets owner Fred Wilpon is still said to be considering opening a franchise after Red Bull New York pulls up stakes for Harrison. If that happens, one more U.S. city will join in that round ... unless Ottawa, which has recently thrown its hat into the ring, nips in. NHL Senators owner Eugene Melnyk has recently met with league officials and is eyeing a 2013-14 entrance.
All the off-field intrigue threatened to overshadow the whole purpose MLS bigwigs were in Toronto in the first place. Thursday night, the MLS All-Stars beat West Ham 3-2 in a game that started out soporific but brightened as the match wore on.
Canadian fans won't soon forget the opening ceremony, however, where the Canadian flag was initially not displayed along side the American and English standards. The sold-out crowd booed the U.S. anthem and then proceeded to roar through an a cappella version of "O, Canada."
That passion might have been a bit too much for MLS execs, who hurriedly got a Canadian flag onto the field, played the anthem and then kicked off the game.
Hometown boy Jim Brennan got the biggest ovation of the game when he took the field in the 60th minute, but it was Cuauhtemoc Blanco who got the prettiest goal of the evening, running a give and go with Juan Toja two minutes before the half that led to a fierce right-footed, cross-face bullet that Robert Green could only watch curl the inside of his net.
Dwayne DeRosario got the winner off a penalty following a foul on him by Lucas Neill in the 69th. Dean Ashton, Christian Gomez and Jimmy Conrad all also scored, Conrad unfortunately heading the ball into his own net in the 67th.