Major League Soccer, the burgeoning circuit with 14 teams and plans to add four franchises in the next three years, closes its request for expansion applications today and will receive bids from Vancouver, Montreal and Ottawa.
In Vancouver, an application backed by reclusive B.C. businessman and soccer hobbyist Greg Kerfoot and NBA superstar Steve Nash will not face local competition after the NHL's Vancouver Canucks decided not to enter the fray yesterday.
Francesco Aquilini, the chairman of Canucks Sports and Entertainment, had been working on an MLS bid since his offer to team with Kerfoot, owner of the United Soccer Leagues' Vancouver Whitecaps, was rebuffed.
Yesterday, Aquilini, who had met at least twice with MLS commissioner Don Garber, declined to comment. An informed source said Aquilini pulled out after failing to secure a soccer-specific stadium.
MLS, North America's premier soccer league, is adding two expansion franchises in 2011, swelling its membership to 18 clubs after Seattle joins in 2009 and Philadelphia in 2010.
Several U.S. groups are also expected to bid, raising the number of contending cities to as many as nine.
The league is expected to award the new franchises by March of 2009. Requests to interview MLS officials about the expansion process were denied.
Aquilini's stadium play, ironically, rested with the current home of the Whitecaps. Swangard Stadium, with a capacity of roughly 6,000, is an aging facility in Burnaby, B.C., and would have required major work to meet MLS standards, including an expansion to 20,000 seats. Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan has spoken with Aquilini about renovating the facility after the Whitecaps announced earlier this year that they would be moving downtown to B.C. Place in 2011.
Aquilini's interest was piqued by potential synergies with his hockey team. The Canucks have the corporate infrastructure to operate an MLS team, and a database of roughly 60,000 potential sports consumers — the NHL team's season-ticket holders and its extensive waiting list.
Aquilini approached Kerfoot and Nash about a partnership this year. After being rejected, his MLS interest did not cool, prompting the Whitecaps to prepare for a turf war and reaffirm their standing as guardians of the game in British Columbia.
"We did talk to MLS when it became apparent to us that [Aquilini] was looking at an MLS franchise, but not to say you owe us anything," Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi said.
The Kerfoot-Nash MLS proposal includes a not-for-profit component that calls for reinvestment into amateur soccer. The bid has widespread political and grassroots support.
MLS is asking for a $40-million (all figures U.S.) expansion fee — four times what Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment paid for Toronto FC in 2005. TFC, which was named Sports Business Journal's 2008 professional sports franchise of the year, routinely plays before sold-out houses at BMO Field.
Kerfoot, who also bankrolls the Canadian women's national team, has designs on a new stadium on Vancouver's downtown waterfront. That plan has been enveloped in red tape for more than five years as the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, a federal agency, mulls a proposed land swap.
Kerfoot owns roughly 25 acres of railway-yard land near the proposed stadium site. He has offered to swap 30,000 square feet of his property for 10,000 square feet of the federal government-owned land.
In the interim, the Whitecaps will move into a retrofitted B.C. Place, which is expected to be more conducive to soccer after extensive renovations, which includes a retractable roof.
The Whitecaps have won two of the past three USL championships. On Sunday, they defeated the Puerto Rico Islanders 2-1 to capture the 2008 title. Yesterday, they attended a ceremony at city hall with Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan.
In Ottawa, Eugene Melnyk, owner of the NHL's Ottawa Senators, has made a late foray into the game with elaborate plans for a new $100-million soccer-specific facility near Scotiabank Place. He is seeking a partnership with the city to develop a 38-acre plot southeast of the suburban arena.
But Melnyk's vision bumps up against a group fronted by junior hockey owner-operator Jeff Hunt that has been granted a conditional CFL franchise.
The football group, which includes wealthy Ottawa businessmen, is expected to announce its stadium plans in the coming weeks. The investors want to partner with the city to rebuild Frank Clair Stadium, the downtown facility where the CFL's Rough Riders and Renegades once played.
"At this point, we both probably feel like we have a better plan," said Cyril Leeder, the Senators chief operating officer and MLS point man.
Meanwhile, in Montreal, the parties are united and the stadium has been built. The USL's Impact unveiled 13,000-seat Saputo Stadium in May. The venue, located in the city's east end near Olympic Stadium, can be expanded to 20,000.
Montreal's bid is financed by the Saputo family, which owns the Quebec food company of the same name and has owned the Impact since 1993, and George Gillett, owner of the NHL Canadiens and co-owner of England's Liverpool FC.