MLS appears set to expand to Montreal

NEW YORK (AP) — Major League Soccer hopes to announce another expansion soon, this time to Montreal.

Commissioner Don Garber says the league also would like to return to the southeast, either to Atlanta or South Florida.

"We're confident that we'll be able to announce a 19th team shortly, and our hope is that 19th team will be in Montreal," he said Thursday during a meeting with the Associated Press Sports Editors.

The league has 16 teams this season and has added clubs for 2011 in Portland, Ore., and Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2011.

While Miami and Tampa Bay once had MLS teams, they were eliminated after the 2001 season.

"Eventually I'm sure we'll get back to the southeast broadly and Florida more specifically," Garber said. "I'm not quite sure what the timing is of that. but I can't imagine this league will be fully expanded without having a team in Florida or south of Washington, D.C. We continue to have discussions in Atlanta. I think Atlanta's a good sports market, also has some competition for its size, but lots of youth participation and a massive and growing Mexican population in Atlanta. Those are probably the two places where we look, South Florida and Atlanta, as the next places in the southeast."

The league does find some obstacles to returning to Florida.

"We in the sports business sort of look at Florida as a difficult market. Many of the pro sports teams there have challenges, and there's a lot of reasons for that: a lot of transient residents, a lot of international visitors that own second homes," he said. "Weather is a big issue Florida, both in terms of rain and the fact that it's very hot when you want to play your games. People have an alternative — they can go to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world."

Seattle, which started play last year, has proven to be an ideal place for the league.

"Seattle's a quirky market," he said. "You think about the kind of consumer that lives there, it has sort of the dynamic that soccer fans describe themselves as. They're a little alternative. That's where the alternative music world was born. A lot of tech people, and tech people tend to be more global and live in a more global environment. There's a massive amount of youth participation there."

Garber thinks the league will grow larger than comparable first divisions in Europe. While eventually he would like to see relegation and promotion, it's not on the horizon because there isn't a financially viable second division that would be acceptable to MLS owners if their teams went down.

"In 2011 we'll have 18 teams in our league," he said. "That's the size league that FIFA would like their first divisions to be. My guess is we probably expand beyond that in the years to come. Our country is a lot bigger than many of the European countries that might have 75 or 80 million people — ours (is) 300 million-plus crossing (four) time zones, We probably have some room for more than 18 teams."

Attendance is up signficantly so far this season. The league is averaging 18,334 for its first 29 games, up 19.9 percent from 15,285 from the comparable period last year.

While the league has grown, television ratings are essentially flat. The 14 telecasts on ESPN, ESPN2, FSC and Telefutura this season have averaged 173,000 viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. At the comparable point last year, 12 telecasts averaged 172,000 viewers.

"Ratings for us don't concern us. It's a long-term project," Garber said of the league, which started play in 1996. "The difference between 250,000 and 400,000 is not the issue. It's how do you get the 400,000 to become 2 million?"