March 7, 2009

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VANCOUVER — Barring a last-minute snag, the owner of the Vancouver Whitecaps Football Club will be awarded a Major League Soccer expansion franchise by the end of this month.

Two sources requesting anonymity said this week that Greg Kerfoot, the reclusive Vancouver businessman and owner of the Whitecaps, was negotiating the final details of an agreement with MLS commissioner Don Garber.

The new MLS team would replace the existing Whitecaps club, which competes in the less prestigious United Soccer League’s First Division. The new team would take the name Whitecaps and begin play in 2011.

Yesterday, Dan Courtemanche, MLS vice-president of communications and marketing, said the league hopes to announce its two successful applicants by March 31. He added that an announcement could still come before the MLS season begins on March 19.

But Mr. Courtemanche also said MLS could announce just one new team by the end of the month, and introduce a second team in April. He said the league would take additional time if needed, but expected the process would be complete by next month at the latest.

That MLS is considering separate announcements further suggests that Vancouver will receive a franchise. The Whitecaps are the only remaining bidder with confirmed financial backing and a resolved stadium plan. The new team would play in a renovated B.C. Place Stadium, which will be fitted with a retractable roof.

It is believed that negotiations between Vancouver’s group, which includes NBA superstar Steve Nash and former Yahoo! Inc. president Jeff Mallett, and MLS revolve around the $40-million (U.S.) franchise fee. Many sports business experts considered that a steep price tag when expansion applications were submitted in October, and the economy has only worsened since.

A source said that, despite losing three bidders since the expansion process began, MLS considers the franchise fee non-negotiable. But the source added that MLS is well aware of the financial times and would be willing to discuss a method in which successful bidders could pay the fee over a longer period.

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment paid just $10-million for Toronto FC, which joined the league in 2007 and instantly turned a $2.1-million profit.

A new team in Seattle begins play this month, and Philadelphia will be home to the league’s 18th franchise in 2010. Both owners paid $30-million for their teams.

Mr. Kerfoot, who is intensely private and does not grant interviews, is a soccer philanthropist who has spent millions operating the Whitecaps and financing the Canadian women’s national team. When reached by e-mail earlier this week, Mr. Mallett refused to comment, saying the group was in a «quiet period.»

The Whitecaps are on a two-week exhibition tour in Tanzania, but team officials have stayed behind as MLS negotiations intensify.

«We aren’t in a position to comment,» Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi said. «We still feel there is a lot to be discussed.»

Because of the withdrawals, MLS’s expansion process has effectively become a game of reasonable deduction. MLS received seven bids for new teams on Oct. 15, but Montreal, Atlanta and Miami have since pulled out. That left Vancouver, Ottawa, Portland, Ore., and St. Louis.

Yesterday, The Oregonian reported that discussions for two sports stadium projects between Portland officials and a local investor broke down on Thursday. Merritt Paulson, who is bidding for an MLS team, is asking the city to renovate an existing facility for soccer purposes, and build a new Triple-A baseball stadium.

Eugene Melnyk, owner of the NHL’s Senators, is backing Ottawa’s bid, but city council won’t choose between competing stadium proposals until the end of next month.