Vancouver faces strong groups among seven cities bidding for MLS teams - The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER — The Vancouver Whitecaps will face some powerful and wealthy groups in their bid to bring a Major League Soccer franchise to the West Coast. FC Barcelona , one of the world's top soccer teams, is part of a group looking to bring a team to Miami, the MLS announced Wednesday. Arthur Blank, owner of the NFL Atlanta Falcons, is also among the seven groups who have applied for franchises. The league will give its approval to two of the groups. As expected, Ottawa and Montreal have also made applications. Eugene Melnyk, owner of the NHL Senators, hopes to bring a team to Ottawa. In Montreal, Joey Saputo, president of the United Soccer Leagues Montreal Impact, and the family of George Gillett, who owns the NHL Canadiens and co-owns Liverpool of the English Premier League, have combined for a bid. The Vancouver bid is headed by Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash, the two-time NBA MVP who grew up in Victoria, Greg Kerfoot, a reclusive Vancouver millionaire who owns the USL Whitecaps, and Jeff Mallett, a former president and chief operating officer at Yahoo Inc. Other cities looking for teams are Portland and St. Louis. "There appears to be some very intriguing options for MLS," said Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi. "What's clear to me is there are people that obviously are solid business people and have other sports ventures that are now looking at soccer. Not just as a opportunity to get involved in a relatively new professional sport in North America, but one they see as a viable business opportunity. I think this augurs well for the future of the game." The MLS is expected to announce where it will award its next two franchises by March. The league's goal is to expand to 18 teams. Seattle Sounders FC begin play next year as the 15th team in MLS, and Philadelphia will join in 2010. Lenarduzzi said the cost of a MLS franchise is US$40 million. He didn't want to speculate on which cities may have an inside track. "I think they'll look for the meat behind each of the proposals and what each club brings to the bid process," he said. "I do believe that having someone like Steve Nash as an owner is not going to hurt us. "Off the top, when you mention a club like Barcelona, that I would think would give them a pretty good competitive advantage." The Whitecaps, who currently play at the 5,288-seat Swangard Stadium, won the USL first division championship Sunday with a 2-1 win over Puerto Rico. The team plans to move into 59,000-seat B.C. Place Stadium once a new, retractable roof is installed after the 2010 Winter Games. The Whitecaps also will continue to pursue plans to build a 20,000-seat stadium on the Vancouver waterfront. Joining forces with Barcelona in Miami is BrightStar Corp. chairman Marcelo Claure, a Miami resident who owns the Bolivian club Bolivar. Besides the Falcons, Blank also controls the Georgia Force of the Arena Football League. The Portland bid is backed by the Paulson family, which controls the USL's Portland Timbers and Portland Beavers of baseball's Triple-A Pacific Coast League. An investment group led by Jeff Cooper is behind the St. Louis bid. Cooper is also involved in the Women's Professional Soccer league franchise in that city and is on the board of Bentford, a League Two team in England.