Portland Timbers to join MLS in 2011, but questions still linger…

In news that shocked nobody (except for Duane Rollins‘s harshest skeptics), Portland (Oregon) was announced this morning as the recipient of Major League Soccer’s 18th franchise, to begin play in 2011 alongside the league’s 17th franchise, their old rivals, the Vancouver Whitecaps Name-TBAs.

While this officially (finally) ends months and months of speculation about MLS’s expansion plans for 2011, today’s press conference did create a few new talking points as well.

In contrast to Vancouver’s somewhat-sterile presser earlier this week, the suits in Portland were flanked by a raucous assortment of Timbers Army members, who were delighted at owner Merritt Paulson’s prompt reassurance that the MLS franchise will, in fact, carry the Timbers name. This comes after the owners of Seattle Sounders FC (who began play in MLS yesterday) decided they wanted to distance themselves from their USL legacy by letting fans pick a new name — but so many fans picked “Sounders” as a write-in choice that they ended up keeping it.

So why, then, did Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi dither on whether the Vancouver MLS franchise will retain the name of its NASL and USL predecessors? In fairness, Lenarduzzi didn’t explicitly say that the team wouldn’t be called the Whitecaps, but after seeing what’s happened with the club’s Cascadia Cup rivals, wouldn’t going with any name other than Whitecaps only serve to alienate the club’s built-in hardcore fanbase?

While we’re on the subject of Canadian teams (as we usually are), MLS commish Don Garber gave some interesting shout-outs during the Portland presser. After his surprising statement earlier this week that MLS wants to add two more teams in 2012, Garber made specific mention of St. Louis and Ottawa today, in reference to the league’s future expansion plans. Now, you could say he only picked those cities because they were the only other two bids left standing from the seven cities that originally threw their names in the hat last autumn.

Even so, with the league looking to expand so quickly, maybe things are looking up for Ottawa after all. This gives Eugene Melnyk another year to hopefully put together a definitive stadium plan. Considering that three out of seven bids for 2011 fell apart before the winning cities were chosen, what are the chances that a whole crop of rock-solid bids are suddenly going to materialize for 2012 (considering that, presumably, the announcements on 2012 will be made one year from now)? Not good. That has to put Ottawa in the driver’s seat when it comes to 2012.

But what about Montreal? What really happened when their bid fell apart? Some people assume it was haggling over the “non-negotiable” $40 million expansion fee… yet Vancouver ended up paying $35 million to get in. But after seeing the terrific atmosphere at Seattle’s Qwest field for the Sounders’ inaugural MLS match last night, the answer (as well-articulated by poster “Free kick” on the Voyageurs board) became clear: it’s the stadium.

Stade Saputo, while nice and new and in a good location, is simply not what MLS is looking for. With only a 13,000-seat capacity, it just wouldn’t convey the “major league” image that MLS needs to gain credibility and exposure. MLS is more interested in scenes like last night’s Sounders/New York match: 32,000 people crammed into a massive, great-looking stadium. Visually and aurally, it was mighty impressive. And unless/until Joey Saputo and/or George Gillette are willing to foot the bill for massive expansions to Stade Saputo, Montreal looks unfortunately resigned to the sidelines as it pertains to MLS expansion.

So even as MLS has firmly put its stamp on the Pacific Northwest, it looks like we’re gearing up to begin another round of speculating, rumour-mongering and message-board-trolling when the Race for 2012 begins later this year. By then, could we see a recent expansion team like Toronto FC or Seattle Sounders FC making a serious push for the MLS Cup? Could Melnyk or Saputo have secured some can’t-miss deal that would make a Canadian franchise a lock for 2012? Could this website have become one of the most successful and well-regarded soccer blogs in North America?

The chances aren’t good on any of those, but the way things are going, can anyone really say for sure?

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One Response to “Portland Timbers to join MLS in 2011, but questions still linger…”

  1. […] which doesn’t line-up with the more ambitious MLS plans. The Vancouver deal went through at $35 million, not the $40 million fee. Saturday the Whitecaps sold four thousand season tickets out of 16,500 in […]

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