New stadium could boost Miami's chances of MLS return
By Simon Evans
MIAMI, Dec 19 (Reuters) - The chances of Major League Soccer returning to Miami have been boosted after city politicians gave their backing to the building of a new, purpose-built, stadium for the sport.
A huge redevelopment plan for downtown Miami includes the demolition of the Orange Bowl stadium and its replacement by a new baseball park for the Florida Marlins and a soccer-specific venue.
Miami Dade County, which backed the plan on Tuesday, is ready to put aside $50 million for the new soccer stadium and that could help persuade Major League Soccer (MLS) that Miami is the right place for an expansion team.
The absence of a central and soccer-specific stadium contributed to the lack of success of the Miami Fusion - a MLS franchise between 1998 and 2001 who ended up playing in the neighbouring city of Fort Lauderdale.
"Mayor (Manny) Diaz has been a champion of the sport and has been speaking with us for more than a year," MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche told Reuters.
"The Orange Bowl site connects with the soccer public in the city and we believe a MLS team in Miami could serve a part of the community that is not necessarily served by other sports at the moment."
Courtemanche said there was no shortage of interest being displayed from potential investors in a franchise.
"There are multiple individuals and organisations that have contracted us regarding an expansion team - the interest is there," he added, before reiterating there remained intense competition from other cities for expansion slots.
The MLS will have 14 teams next season with the return of the San Jose Earthquakes and will add a team in Seattle in 2009 and then look to have a 16th team in place for 2010.
A decision on the 16th team will likely be made by next March with several cities - including Philadelphia, St. Louis and Detroit in contention with Miami.
Miami already has a professional team, Miami FC, who play in the United Soccer Leagues, a rung below the MLS, and their president Aaron Davidson welcomed the plan for a new venue.
"It is phenomenal and the important thing is for everyone to come together to get the best possible professional team in this city, whatever league it is in," Davidson told Reuters.
"There is now a base of land and money and a willingness from the city and the county to support the growth of soccer at a professional level," added Davidson, whose club is owned by Brazilian sports media firm Traffic Sports.
Although Miami FC and Traffic have not been in talks with the MLS about becoming an expansion team, Davidson said they were open to being part of the process.
Miami FC's Brazilian links have enabled them to bring in players like ex-World Cup winners Romario and current club head coach Zinho and the Latin American connections in Miami appeal to the MLS.
"The South Florida market has become very different in the past six or seven years with the influx of people from Latin America from soccer-loving countries," said Courtemanche.