MLS expected to announce Vancouver expansion team

The Vancouver Whitecaps have called a media conference for Wednesday where it's expected they will announce that the club has been selected for one of two MLS expansion franchises scheduled to begin play in 2011.

It appears Major League Soccer is officially coming to Vancouver.

The Vancouver Whitecaps have called a media conference for Wednesday where it's expected they will announce that the club has been selected for one of two MLS expansion franchises scheduled to begin play in 2011.

Currently, the Whitecaps play in the less-prestigious United Soccer League's First Division. Plans are for the new MLS team to replace the existing Whitecaps club and go by the same name, the Globe and Mail reported earlier this month.

Bob Lenarduzzi, the Whitecaps president, would not confirm that the decision would be announced Wednesday but said he expects some sort of announcement prior to the season opening Thursday night in Seattle.

"We're hopeful that, if in fact the league decides they do want to announce in advance of the season starting …, that we will be one of the two successful applicants," Lenarduzzi said Tuesday.

Late Tuesday, B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell's office announced he would attend a news conference Wednesday with representatives of the Whitecaps.

Will Kuhns, MLS director of communications, said the league has indicated in the past it would like to have the new franchises named before the 2009 season begins.

"I think we're definitely nearing the final stages of our explorations and discussions," he said Tuesday from New York.

Nash, Luczo add credibility to bid

The move to the MLS has been anticipated for some time. Last week, Vancouver radio station TEAM 1040 reported that MLS officials would be in Vancouver this week to officially award the expansion team.

Earlier this month, Vancouver businessman Greg Kerfoot, who owns the Whitecaps, was reportedly negotiating the final details of an agreement with MLS commissioner Don Garber.

The expansion fee today is $40 million US.

Other members of the Whitecaps group include NBA star Steve Nash, whose younger brother, Martin, currently plays for the team; Jeff Mallett, an owner of the San Francisco Giants baseball team; and Steve Luczo, a part-owner of the NBA Boston Celtics.

The deep pockets of the four men, plus their sports background, gave the Whitecaps application instant credibility, said Lenarduzzi.

"From the outset, that's been a benefit to our bid, no doubt," he said.

Ottawa, Portland, Ore., and St. Louis, Mo., are in the running for the second expansion franchise, with MLS hoping to announce the successful applicant by March 31.

Ottawa's bid is backed by billionaire Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, but city council is having trouble deciding on competing stadium proposals.

The Vancouver bid appeared to have an edge in that it was the only one with solid financial backing and a completed stadium plan. The new team is expected to play in B.C. Place Stadium, which will be fitted with a retractable roof, according to the Globe and Mail.

Sam Sullivan, who was Vancouver's mayor at the time, met with Garber in November to lobby for his city.

Toronto FC looks forward to having Canadian rival

Launched in 1996, MLS has grown from an eight-team league to 14 teams for the 2009 season, which begins Thursday.

Toronto FC, the first Canadian club in the MLS, joined the league in 2007. The team opens its regular season on Saturday in Kansas City.

A spokesman for the Toronto club, the first Canadian team to join MLS in 2007, said Vancouver would be a great addition to the league.

"We hope Vancouver gets in," said Tom Anselmi, executive vice-president and CEO for Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment. "I think it would be terrific for soccer in Canada.

"It would be terrific to have a natural rival on this side of the border. I think it would be good for development of young Canadian kids … it's a hell of a soccer market."

MLS will expand to 16 clubs with the addition of a team in Seattle in 2009 and Philadelphia in 2010.

With files from the Canadian Press