MLS approves Toronto expansion franchise

The team will begin play in the 2007 season.

The world's most popular sport – soccer – is coming to Toronto.

On Saturday the board of governors of Major League Soccer, the top professional soccer league in the United States, formally approved Toronto's application for an expansion franchise to begin play in 2007.

The deal is still pending finalizing terms of an agreement, but league commissioner Donald Garber said the remaining details would be ironed out in short order. When they are, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., which also owns the NHL's Maple Leafs and the NBA's Raptors, will be confirmed as the owners of the league's 13th team.

The board "formally approved their application for expansion," Garber is quoted on the league's official website. "There's still some things left that they need to do in Toronto on the stadium front before ... we can announce a deal.

MLSE is "really an impressive group," he added. "[They] are going to be terrific partners."

Toronto's MLS team will play its home games at a new 20,000-seat soccer-specific stadium to be built at Exhibition Place. Construction is slated to begin in January.

Last month Toronto's city council voted 25-13 to approve $9.8 million in funding for the construction of the $62.8-million stadium. Ottawa will contribute $27 million, while Queen's Park will chip in another $8 million. MLSE will commit $8 million and naming rights are expected to account for another $10 million.

The new stadium was the key to Toronto gaining admittance into MLS.

The league and MLSE had been negotiating terms but the talks hit snags when plans to build a soccer-specific stadium in the city fell apart in the last year.

In an attempt to bring a conclusive end to the proceedings, Garber gave MLSE an Oct. 31 deadline to finalize plans for the construction of a new stadium – otherwise the league would give an expansion club to another city. The city council vote sealed MLSE's fate, helping to bring MLS to Toronto.

Toronto will become the first Canadian club in MLS history. The league has indicated further expansion in Canada is an option sometime down the road.

The Toronto Lynx, Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact currently compete in the United Soccer League (formerly known as the A-League), which is the soccer equivalent of hockey's American Hockey League.

Major League Soccer was formed in 1993 in fulfillment of U.S. Soccer's promise to FIFA, soccer's world governing body, to establish a pro league in exchange for staging the 1994 World Cup on American soil.

The league kicked off in 1996 with 10 teams and boasted surprisingly strong attendance the first season. Numbers declined slightly after that, but stabilized in subsequent years thanks to the league's TV deal with ABC and ESPN.

The league expanded to 12 teams in 1998, adding the Chicago Fire and Miami Fusion. However, following the 2001 season, both Miami and the Tampa Bay Mutiny folded and the league contracted back to 10 clubs.

Following the 2004 campaign, the league expanded again, adding Real Salt Lake, located in Utah and Chivas USA, which plays its homes games in Carson, Calif.

Those expansion franchises cost $10 million US apiece, but MLS said the expansion price tag this time around would be slightly higher.

Commissioner Garber has promised Toronto the 2008 MLS all-star game and an MLS Cup (the league's championship game) by 2012.

The Los Angeles Galaxy and New England Revolution face off in Sunday's MLS Cup from Frisco, Texas.