By R.B. Fallstrom, AP Sports Writer
ST. LOUIS — Major League Soccer remains on track for expansion in 2011 despite the recession, with two new cities to be added before the season starts in mid-March. St. Louis' chances hinge on strengthening its investor base.
Commissioner Don Garber took note of the area's enthusiasm for soccer when his plane landed and everywhere he saw soccer jerseys, and in media coverage prior to Thursday's SuperDraft. He also indicated that the group headed by lawyer Jeff Cooper must improve its bottom line.
"It's a great soccer market and we hope to be here at some point," Garber said. "It's got most of what it takes. We've got to find out if it has all of what it takes."
Cooper left a breakfast meeting with the commissioner aware of the uphill task and short time frame.
Six other cities are vying for expansion slots, with Miami and Vancouver perhaps the favorites. Also applying are Montreal, Atlanta, Ottawa and Portland, all ready to pay the $40 million fee.
"These are tough times, but so far I'm very confident we'll be adding teams for 2011," Garber said.
The commissioner said interest in soccer is more important than being in the biggest cities, which presumably would help middle-tier St. Louis.
"We need to have passionate markets, bright owners and good facilities," Garber said. "We need to be where we can succeed, and St. Louis has the feeling of being a market like that."
Cooper added National League MVP Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals to his investor group in November, hoping that would persuade other business leaders to become involved. The group has financing in place for an 18,500-seat stadium yet to be built in suburban Collinsville, Ill.
Yet it's still considered lacking. Garber said money was St. Louis' "primary concern."
"That's been MLS's constant refrain as we've gone through this process," Cooper said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "We're probably being held to a little higher standard.
"We've been looking to strengthen our group and will continue to do so."
Holding the draft in St. Louis couldn't hurt Cooper's chances. The Eads Brigade, a club of soccer enthusiasts, sang "All we want is a team to call our own" to the tune of "Yellow Submarine" just outside the draft headquarters while holding a large sign that said, "St. Louis in MLS Now! Garber, What Are You Waiting For?"
The 125-member group is named after a bridge connecting St. Louis and Illinois, symbolizing the scope of the effort.
"I think the commissioner knows what a great soccer city St. Louis is," Cooper said. "It would be a great, supportive atmosphere. Everything about the bid is strong, and in line."