MLS boss a big booster of Canada

STEVEN SANDOR, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:06 PM ET

Don Garber doesn't hold a Canadian passport, but Major League Soccer's commissioner is one of the biggest boosters this country has in the world of sport.

Two other major leagues see Canada as nothing more than a place to park a Toronto franchise. Once the NBA left Vancouver, the Raptors became a regional interest, despite it's best efforts to call itself Canada's Team. And you will find a heck of a lot of Twins fans in Manitoba and Mariners fans in B.C. The Blue Jays are Canada's team by default, but baseball has no real coast-to-coast penetration.

The NHL has six Canadian teams, but wrestles with the ghosts of Quebec City and Winnipeg. And even though the battle over the Phoenix Coyotes was about Jim Balsillie, not the country, the resulting PR spin wasn't good in Canada. “Make it Seven” made it easy to get on board. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman made for a convenient villain.

Meanwhile, MLS announced Tuesday that Toronto will be getting MLS Cup in 2010. It's already awarded this city an All-Star Game. Vancouver joins the league in 2011. Garber was in Montreal Monday to talk with Montreal Impact owner Joey Saputo about what's needed to bring the team to MLS in 2012.

And he isn't done. At Tuesday's MLS Cup press conference at the Air Canada Centre, he said the league might not stop at three Canadian teams.

Garber said all the focus is on Montreal, “to do what we can to get that deal done.”

But, over and over, he hinted that MLS sees itself as going into more than three Canadian cities.

“I think there are opportunities for other markets,” Garber said in the scrum.

He said the Montreal franchise could be a catalyst “for more in the future.”

Ottawa Senators' owner Eugene Melnyk saw his bid for an MLS expansion franchise go off the rails when the city wouldn't back his bid to put a soccer stadium in the middle of nowhere known as Kanata. Kanata made Giants Stadium in Parkinglotville, N.J., seem downright homey. But, taking Garber at his word, there's still a chance for Ottawa to get a bid in there. The sell-out success of the Seattle Sounders at Qwest Field has softened the MLS' stance of “soccer-specific stadium, or else.”

So a downtown, multi-purpose stadium might sell. After all, Garber went on and on about how the decision to put BMO Field in view of the Toronto skyline was a key to the team's success. The league like soccer specific, but with Seattle (multi-purpose stadium downtown) succeeding and FC Dallas – which has a soccer-specific stadium so far outside the city, its somewhere close to Oklahoma, —drawing just over 8,000 for the home opener, there's growing feeling that soccer must happen in cities, not in suburbs. Even Red Bull Arena, which has a direct train from Manhattan to the stadium, fits into that thinking even though it's in Jersey.

As well, with a new United States Soccer Federation-2 team coming to Edmonton in 2011, that city has a chance to finally prove it could join the big leagues, burying the memories of an Edmonton Aviators USL franchise that went bust before a full season was played.

Why would the league go to these places before a hotbed like St. Louis? MLS has always put the market conditions ahead of the demographics. Columbus got a team right off the bat; Philadelphia had to wait until 2010.

Remember, like any league which is dominated by American teams, American TV networks and American sponsors, the MLS is under pressure not to come to Canada. It's OK to have a team here, but too much Canada isn't a good thing. Can't sell it to American viewers.

But MLS has always marched to its own beat. And, while Bettman does his best to downplay or squelch any rumours of teams coming to Canada, Garber fans the flames. He knows that soccer is destined to become the No. 2 sport to hockey.

Garber said MLS not only wants the United States' national team to do well, but he hopes a league filled with Canadian teams can make this country's team a regional power, as well. He wants both Canada and the U.S. to beat the stuffing out of Mexico on a regular basis (well, he can dream, can't he?)

“We want to have Canada in the World Cup,” said Garber.

Garber said he admires how Canadians have such a passion and connection for hockey; and, he thinks that passion can be transferred to MLS.

He's finding out the best way to fire up that passion is not to follow the path of the NBA and MLB — to ignore the fans and hope that simply having a Toronto franchise is good enough.


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