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MLS Expansion Is Welcomed

Owner of Mexican club Chivas will field a U.S. team in 2005. Cleveland also will have a team.

November 22, 2003|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

No matter how many foreign investors it attracts, Major League Soccer will continue to be first and foremost an American league.

That point was made in emphatic fashion Friday by Commissioner Don Garber and then underlined several times by players and coaches from the Chicago Fire and San Jose Earthquakes, the teams that will play in MLS Cup 2003 at the Home Depot Center in Carson on Sunday.

The nearly sold-out championship match marks the end of the league's eighth season. All 10 teams will return in 2004, but in 2005 expansion will increase that number to 12 and in 2006 there probably will be 14 MLS teams.

One of the new clubs in 2005 will be Chivas USA, owned by Mexican businessman Jorge Vergara, who also owns Chivas of Guadalajara and Saprissa of Costa Rica.

Meanwhile, MLS is "still involved in discussions" with Mexican media giant Televisa, which owns Club America of Mexico City, about investing in the league, possibly in 2006.

And so while Garber announced Friday that Ohio businessman Bert Wolstein had signed a letter of intent to become an MLS investor-operator and will build a 20,000-seat soccer-specific stadium in Cleveland to be ready by 2005, it was Chivas, not Wolstein, that caused a buzz.

Similarly, while Garber announced that the University of Central Oklahoma in the Oklahoma City suburb of Edmond had begun a major renovation of Wantland Stadium with the intention of attracting an MLS team, it was the possible addition of a Televisa-owned team to MLS that caught the attention.

There has been widespread speculation that any Mexican-owned team, especially Chivas USA, would be granted exemptions from MLS rules limiting the number of foreign players on a team's roster.

Chivas of Guadalajara has never fielded a non-Mexican player. But Garber said that decades-old tradition would not extend to Vergara's newest club.

"Chivas USA will be playing in Major League Soccer in 2005 and they will be playing under the same rules as every other team in MLS," he said.

Later, there came a question from a Latino journalist.

"I want to ask the players how they feel about having a Mexican expansion team playing in the league and what would it bring and what would it mean for the game here in the United States," the reporter said.

That had Garber grabbing for the microphone in a hurry.

"Let me just correct you," he said. "It's not a Mexican expansion team. It's an expansion team owned by a Mexican man, but it's an MLS expansion team."

Fire captain and U.S. national team midfielder Chris Armas fielded the question all the same.

"I think the general feeling from the players is that if the team is going to come in and play by the rules of our league, so be it," he said. "We'd welcome it. I think it would be a great step to get the interest from the Mexican community. Why not? I'm all for it."

Jeff Agoos, the Earthquakes' captain and a longtime U.S. national team defender, was even more concerned about MLS rules being followed.

"I don't care if it's Chivas or Bayern Munich or whoever wants to own a team in this league, we're ecstatic about getting more teams," he said. "This league needs expansion teams. But I have to reiterate what Chris said. It is vitally ... important that they stick to the rules of this league and that those rules don't change.

"This is an American league with American players. We need to develop those. The [U.S. team's quarterfinal appearance in the 2002] World Cup is a testament to how this league has been important internationally.

"Obviously, there's an intense rivalry between the two countries [the U.S. and Mexico], but I think that's only good for the sport. I think Chivas' moving into this league is good for the sport. I think it's good for this league. I think it'll be good for American players."

Chicago Coach Dave Sarachan, an assistant coach on the 2002 U.S. World Cup team, agreed.

"I always welcome good competition," he said. "You've got a team that's coming in with a tradition, and good soccer should follow. If everyone's stuck on the fact of [Chivas USA] being Mexican, that is going to play out as it plays out.

"I think there's certainly a respect in this region for Chivas and for high-level Mexican soccer. We can't get caught up in the minutiae of, 'Is this a real American group or not?' "

San Jose Coach Frank Yallop echoed the sentiment.

"It's an American team they're bringing in," he said. "They call it Chivas, but it's still based in the U.S.A., it's still going to be an American team, it's still going to be American fans going to the game. We're not playing in Mexico City, it's in our country. I think it's a good thing, I really do."

Where Chivas USA will play is unclear, but San Diego remains the preferred choice if a stadium can be agreed upon.

"Vergara wanted to come in in 2004, but we didn't want to play with 11 teams," Garber said. "We want to expand logically and systematically in the right environment. Jorge will now have a year to build his team instead of two months."

Meanwhile, Rochester, N.Y., where public funding for a soccer-specific stadium recently was approved, also is being mentioned as a potential expansion site.

"The good news is we have more people interested in coming into this league than we have slots available," Garber said, "so that means we're feeling pretty bullish about further expansion in 2006."

Expansion could mean a more competitive regular season, said 40-year-old Kansas City Wizard midfielder Preki, who Friday was named the league's MVP for the second time.

"It seems the regular season doesn't really matter because only two teams don't make the playoffs," he said. "But as the league grows, as we have maybe 16 to 20 teams and it becomes much more difficult to make the playoffs, the regular season will mean a lot, just like NFL football or baseball, where they work all season for that home-field advantage."

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