Wheelock: Canada is a Prime Target as MLS Expansion Looms

MLS Wrap cohost Sean D. Wheelock writes about American soccer every Thursday on www.FoxSoccer.Com.

By Sean Wheelock FoxSoccer.Com - Although the 2005 Major League Soccer soccer season has yet to begin it's not too early to start thinking about the next round of expansion.

The addition of CD Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake for the upcoming campaign marks the beginning of an aggressive plan of growth by MLS which could see the league reach as many as 20 clubs. It is all but certain that two more expansion sides will enter the league by the 2007 season meaning that the announcement of the new cities could come by year's end.

And right now there is no short supply of those expressing at least preliminary interest. Seattle Cleveland Rochester Portland Detroit Houston Philadelphia Phoenix San Antonio to name just a few with the list seemingly growing by the month.

Yet there is one potential MLS city that currently stands out as ideal above all the rest and beckons as the perfect choice for the league's next round of expansion. For starters it would house the new club in a state-of-the-art 25000-seat soccer-specific stadium to be opened in 2007. Secondly the ownership/investor group is an established respected and locally based multi-million dollar sports corporation willing to make a long-term commitment. Thirdly the city has a metro population of 5.3 million residents and is renowned as hip vibrant and cosmopolitan.

And there's more. A history of soccer that dates back to the formative years of the NASL as well as an active tradition of strongly supporting other major league professional sports. A diverse and growing ethnic population. A youth soccer registry of 363000 active players in the region. A genuine desire to see MLS come to their city.

Sounds perfect and I think it is for MLS. There's just one thing though; it's not located in the United States.

The city which I am advocating is Toronto and rather than see its foreign location as a negative I consider it as the final positive in this expansion equation. By placing a new franchise in Toronto MLS is not just creating substantial interest in new city they are in fact doing so in a new country. The Toronto MLS club would become "Canada's Team" for the country's legion of soccer fans.

While other cities continually discuss plans and express their desire to construct a soccer-specific stadium Toronto is definitely going to have one in place and ready to house an MLS club. A 25000 seat venue will be constructed as the centerpiece for Canada's hosting of the 2007 FIFA World Youth Championship at a cost of $70 million Canadian (about $56.5 million in U.S. Dollars).

Although the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League have already signed on as a tenant make no mistake this stadium is being built primarily for soccer. The plan is to create not only the main venue for Canada's international matches but also to attract an expansion club in MLS.

Ownership has also been an issue that has rendered many cities interested in gaining an MLS franchise nothing more than dreamers. No such problem here as Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment owners of the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs and NBA's Toronto Raptors is the group currently in discussions with the league to bring an expansion club to the city. Obviously finances and reputation will not be a problem.

Now I know that one issue that will be raised in objection to Toronto is the fact that MLS is an American soccer league and thus should include only American cities. Well I reject that type of thinking outright as contrary to the global nature and inherent inclusiveness of the sport.

If Cardiff City were to be promoted to the Premiership does that somehow make the league less English? Not a chance. MLS is the American First Division and that will simply not change if a club is placed in Toronto or Mexico City for that matter. The designation comes from where the league office and the vast majority of its clubs are based.

Then there is the issue of FIFA and whether they will approve. I've spoken to top league officials about this very subject and have been told the same thing: FIFA won't have a problem whatsoever. And really why would they? A chance to further grow and enhance the sport in both the US and Canada; why would Sepp Blatter be anything but wholly supportive and utterly joyous? It's not like Canada has their own domestic first division that would be put at risk. Last time I looked the CSL went out of business after the 1992 season.

And it's not like a precedent would have to be set. The NASL happily existed with as many as five Canadian clubs and despite its name was generally considered an American soccer league. Last year the U.S. second division A-League had a total of 16 clubs five of which were based in Canada. FIFA never raised an objection in either case.

Internationally the precedent has long been set as well. Now the U.N. may not recognize Wales as a separate nation but FIFA certainly does. I've already cited the Cardiff City example a side currently in the English Championship. There's also Wrexham in England's League 1 and Swansea in England's League 2. Australia's top flight to be relaunched this year as the Hyundai A-League will include Auckland Kingz based of course in New Zealand. And then there is Lichtenstein's top club FC Vaduz who play in the Swiss second division.

So Toronto in MLS is not exactly going to create an idealogical quandary for FIFA.

Now as for the 'citizen' classification that won't be a problem either. Canadians on the Toronto franchise would almost certainly be afforded the same status given to Americans on the U.S. based MLS clubs. Any non-Canadian would then fall into the foreign player category clearing the way for a large number of the country's internationals to join the club without restriction.

It would be in the best interest of both Major league Soccer and the expansion club in Toronto to create a de-facto National Team which both the city and the country could get behind with patriotic zeal and pride. The Toronto matches would be shown on television nationally not just locally or regionally and likely in both English and French. Media coverage and merchandising would exist across Canada as well obviously boosting the profile and expanding the support base of MLS.

Finally I know that some American fans are going to claim that placing an MLS club in Toronto is going to help the Canadian squad. Now I do agree that Canada will benefit from having many of its internationals playing together on a weekly basis but I don't see this as a detriment to the success of the U.S. National Team.

The United States has achieved the status of the top nation in CONCACAF and emerging world power in the sport and as supporters we should feel secure in these facts. For the American squad to keep improving and gaining more impressive results it's vital that MLS becomes both bigger and better. If Canada or any other country benefits as a result that's absolutely fine with me.

Major League Soccer is going to keep adding clubs over the next decade; this simply is not in question. It's paramount then that the right cities possessing the right stadium ownership group and fans be selected to ensure the continual growth and success of the league. As MLS enters its tenth season the margin for error afforded to new leagues has now all but disappeared. Major League Soccer must choose wisely when determining where to place a new franchise. Toronto now looms as the perfect choice.

Next week in my column on www.FoxSoccer.Com I'll interview Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment President and CEO Richard Peddie the man at the forefront of the Toronto MLS bid.