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State of the League: Growing

Don Garber’s state of the league address at the All-Star Game showed why the man makes Designated Player money. Don’t you wish your annual employee review session would go as well as his speech did?

For anyone who’s investing their money and/or passion in MLS, all the numbers are trending positive. ESPN’s ratings are up 20% from last year at this time, Univision’s up 10%, and DC United’s TV ratings are better than those of the Washington Nationals. 16,000 season tickets have been sold (not pledged) in Seattle for 2009, 5,000 more in Philadelphia for 2010, and there’s a list of cities competing to join the party.

In his speech, Garber said MLS would expect to expand to 18 teams in the “next couple” of years, and that the league was in “no rush to expand.” By the time that statement found its way to my laptop, I had heard the announcement that MLS had agreed to add two more teams in 2011. Garber mentioned the following expansion possibilities: Atlanta, Las Vegas, Miami, a second team in New York, Portland, and St. Louis in the U.S. and Montreal, Ottawa, and Vancouver in Canada.

Let’s take a look at our contestants:

Atlanta, Las Vegas, Miami – fuhgetaboutit. There had been some sort of discussions in each city, but nothing much came of any of them.

New York? A good bet, one day, as the original MLS plan called for two NYC teams. But if MLS is hoping the Mets’ owners will build a stadium out in Queens, they’re kind of busy doing just that for their baseball team, so they might be a little cash poor these days. And, how much would the Red Bulls demand for a chunk of NY territorial rights?

Portland? Good idea. A good soccer city, and it also fits on the map nicely between Seattle and San Jose. But since some millionaire sent his kid up there to figure out a stadium plan a few months ago, I haven’t heard a thing.

Ottawa? A latecomer, but after seeing how the team in Toronto is working out, suddenly MLS is a very popular topic among possible Canadian investors. But these guys are a little new to the game, and Garber & Co. really want to see a workable stadium/business plan before they’ll say okay.

As I type this, St. Louis, Vancouver, and Montreal have what it takes to be good to go in 2011. The first nod has to go to St. Louis, where the potential investors patiently sat on their checkbooks as they watched Philadelphia get The Call to be franchise #16. If they don’t get a team, I’d be shocked. Forget all that noise about the long soccer history of that city, they have the money and the stadium plan, and the team would give both Chicago and Kansas City a (much-needed) natural rival.

Vancouver is my choice for spot #2, based on the deal the team signed with the British Columbian government to move into BC Place in 2011, after that stadium’s dome is replaced with a retractable roof (and, please, please, has its turf field replaced by natural grass). Seattle is a long way from anywhere and everywhere in MLS, and the Sounders need somebody in the league closer than a 2-day drive away. Having Steve Nash walking around Toronto All-Star week wearing a Whitecaps jersey didn’t hurt Vancouver's chances, and those of us who remember the NASL days will tell you Vancouver might come close to equaling Seattle when it comes to season ticket sales.

Montreal is a deserving city with a nice new stadium and a lot of games versus the Rochester Rhinos in their future. Like Portland, the city would fit in well, and they have the money and fan base to be a good addition to the league. And, like the Timbers, I could see the Impact join MLS some day, just not this round.

So, St. Louis and Vancouver? Sounds good to me, if the league realizes they're going to have to spend a bit to make two more teams deserving of being called "major league." Listening to Garber’s speech, one thing that still bugs me about the Commish is, in his five central factors essential to the growth of the league, he gets things in the wrong order. He says he wants to “turn North American soccer fans into MLS fans,” then he says he wants to “continue to improve the quality of play.” That’s backwards. To win over those North American soccer fans, MLS will have to continue to improve the overall quality of play. But that’s another column. Today, it's cheers to Don Garber.

And, yes, I did enjoy watching him getting pelted with streamers during his ESPN interview at BMO Field. “Embrace the passion and electricity that makes soccer the world's most popular sport,” Don!