MLS paves way for Toronto team
Major League Soccer has opened the door to an expansion team in Toronto, providing on-again, off-again plans for a stadium are nailed down by the end of the month.
Commissioner Don Garber said the league has done “the hard work” with would-be owner Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd., owner of the NHL Leafs and NBA Raptors, and the Canadian Soccer Association, which has done a lot of the donkey work in keeping the stadium plan alive.
Now MLS wants the stadium situation sorted pronto, with Garber looking to have a Toronto team in place in 2007. That works for the Canadian Soccer Association, which needs a showcase soccer-specific stadium to help host the 2007 world under-20 soccer championship.
“There’s not a lot of time to get this building built,” Garber said on a conference call Tuesday in announcing the Oct. 31 deadline to firm up stadium plans. “There’s no reason to wait. We want to know where we stand. But if we wait too long, then all of this drags out. Toronto loses its stadium, loses its team and then ultimately has the potential of not having a good spot to play the (under-20) World Cup.”
Up next, the proposed site at Exhibition Place has to be approved and Toronto City Council has to puts its money where the mayor’s mouth is.
The Exhibition Place board of governors has to approve the project, and several levels of City Council have to give a green light to $9.5 million in promised funding at meetings that start Oct. 26. As land-owner, the City of Toronto would own the stadium.
If all that happens, MLSE will commit dollars and “we’ll sign on the dotted line for a franchise,” said Richard Peddie, president of MLSE.
Kevan Pipe, chief operating officer of the Canadian Soccer Association, says Garber’s announcement represented a “huge step” forward in the right direction. But he acknowledged there is still work to do.
It is not the first deadline imposed by MLS. Just the most public.
“Don’s been great,” said Peddie. “He gave us a deadline in June, July, August, September, Oct. 1. And I think he’s given us his final deadline. He’s not trying to play brinkmanship. From what I can tell, he’s got other choices.”
Adding to his ultimatum, Garber said the league needs a decision for its Nov. 12 board meeting. The next gathering is slated for March, which he says would be too late.
“We are close to finalizing a deal for ’07. We’ve given MLSE an exclusive window through the end of the month, Oct. 31 to negotiate a deal for an expansion team,” Garber said.
The 12-team league added two new franchises this season: Real Salt Lake and FC Chivas, which plays out of Carson, Calif. Those expansion franchises cost $10 million US apiece.
Garber said the expansion price tag this time is “slightly higher.”
The league is looking for a second expansion team in 2007, with the leading candidates Cleveland, Philadelphia, Houston, Milwaukee and St. Louis, Garber said.
The MLS deadline puts some pressure on the various partners involved in the stadium project to settle their differences and get a shovel in the ground. The stadium has been an on-again, off-again affair with sites shelved at both the University of Toronto and York University.
More recently there has been disagreement between various levels of government involved in helping fund the project on whether it should be built on the lakefront at Exhibition Place or in the northern part of the city at Downsview Park.
The current budget of the stadium is around $62 million Cdn.
The federal government, which owns the Downsview land but now seems to have signed off on Exhibition Place, has pledged $27 million with another $8 million from the provincial government. If the city pledges $9.65 million, that leaves a little more than $17 million needed.
Part of that shortfall will be made up in selling naming rights to the stadium, a process that is already under way.
MLSE is ready to contribute the rest although it won’t say how much that is other than to say “it’s substantial.”
Garber called Exhibition Place “the perfect location.” The property is adjacent to Ontario Place on the lakefront and once housed Exhibition Stadium, the former home to the Argos and Blue Jays. It currently is home to the Ricoh Coliseum, where the American Hockey League Marlies play, and the annual CNE summer fair.
An MLS team would give Canadian talent a chance to develop domestically in the highest level of North American club soccer.
MLS is a so-called single-entity organization. That means the players are under contract to the league, which then allocates them to the individual franchises.
A team in Toronto would consist of Canadians, with perhaps a few imports just as U.S. teams are largely American with a limit on foreigners.
Canadians currently in MLS include Pat Onstad and Dwayne DeRosario (San Jose Earthquakes), Will Johnson (Chicago Fire) and Winston Marshall (FC Dallas).
While the MLS franchise carries a significant expansion fee and stadium costs, soccer represents a budget sport to Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment when compared to the five-star world of hockey or basketball.
The current salary budget for MLS teams is about $1.8 million US per squad.
“That was the price of one hockey player a year ago,” Peddie said.
The league minimum for a senior roster player was $28,000 US in 2005.
As for attendance, Peddie says if a Toronto MLS team can draw 13,000 to 15,000 per game, “that would do the job for us.”
Garber, who is always open to expansion possibilities, did not rule out other Canadian teams in the future. The Montreal Impact of the United Soccer League already have a new stadium in the works, and the Vancouver Whitecaps are also looking to build.
“The intent is in time to expand to other cities in Canada and we’re actually very excited about that,” Garber said. “We just have not put a particular timetable in place as to when exactly that would happen.”
Garber even talked of maybe convincing Canadian national team coach Frank Yallop, a former MLS coach of the year with the San Jose Earthquakes, to return to MLS.
If that were to happen, Yallop might have to give up a job. Pipe said coaching the national team is a “full-time occupation.” Yallop, who has dismissed rumours he is looking to return to a MLS team, is under contract through the end of 2006 with the national team.