Bob Ford | Area slowly scoring an MLS team

Posted: August 24, 2007

After years of missteps and restarts, mostly built on solid logic but flimsy funding, the Philadelphia area is approaching the critical mass necessary to land an expansion franchise in Major League Soccer.

As usual, however, the approach is painfully slow, and soccer fans in the region are worried that when MLS hands out a pair of franchises before the end of this year - the last ones it intends to offer for a while - speedier suitors will have already found the back of the net.

"Where we are right now, honestly, is really close to the finish line," said Bryan James, president of Sons of Ben, a local group of soccer supporters that has practiced for the future by attending MLS games in New Jersey and Washington in order to boo those teams. "We're a lot more encouraged than we have been in the past."

In the past, while the size of the Philadelphia market and its strong sports culture make it an attractive fit for MLS, various attempts to land a franchise were tripped up by two missing components: political support for building a midsize soccer-specific stadium, and someone with deep pockets and a thick checkbook to become the local owner-operator.

That has changed now, or is on the verge of doing so.

An investment group headed by James Nevels, outgoing chairman of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, received the blessing of Gov. Rendell last week to seek support for a stadium built along the Chester waterfront near the Commodore Barry Bridge.

It is possible that blessing was a payback for Nevels' resignation from the commission after repeatedly butting heads with Rendell, although all concerned express shock and dismay that such a thing would be suggested.

For the soccer community, whatever works is fine. Rendell appears willing to get behind some state funding for the stadium as part of an effort to revitalize Chester. Nevels, a well-connected Republican, has also received support from Senate majority leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), who was once Chester's mayor. So there are players on both sides of the ball for a change.

As for the real money, the Nevels group is getting close to announcing the identity of its principal investor, according to attorney Charles G. Kopp, who is representing the group.

"It's going very well," Kopp said. "I can't say much beyond that right now."

Getting the balloon off the ground will take about $170 million, of which $30 million is the MLS franchise fee and the rest would cover construction and infrastructure costs at the stadium site.

Although Kopp would not comment, it is reasonable to assume that the deep-pocketed investor would like to know the amount of public commitment before signing on, and the state and local politicians would like to eyeball the stability of the group before authorizing funds.

That little dance could take a while - at least until the Pennsylvania legislature reconvenes next month - and there are competitors in the hinterlands doing their own dances. St. Louis and Seattle are mounting serious bids for the two expansion franchises, and other cities - including Phoenix; Portland, Ore.; Atlanta; San Diego; San Antonio, Texas; and Vancouver - have also expressed interest.

Hoping to goose the process in the Philadelphia area, the Sons of Ben are circulating a petition of support for the proposed Chester stadium, garnering signatures that will be passed on to the legislature. Online signatures are also being collected at www.sonsofben.com, a Web site guarded by the group's somewhat ghoulish logo, a Ben Franklin skull, and the slogan: "We've got the fans. We've got the city. We just need a team!"

"Our goal is to be able to hand the petition to the politicians, to the governor and Mr. Pileggi, and they can make of it what they will," Bryan James said. "When you travel up I-95, Chester is the first thing you see of Philadelphia, of the whole state. To have something impressive like the stadium at the waterfront would really do well. And I think Philadelphia fans are the most intelligent, passionate fans in the country. Even casual fans will take to the game if they give it a chance."

MLS has 13 teams at the moment and received a huge publicity bump this season with the arrival of the occasionally available David Beckham. Next year, an expansion franchise will begin play in San Jose, Calif.

The league says it will award two more expansion franchises before the end of November, with those teams expected to begin play in 2009 or 2010. Then the MLS will rest for a while, play as a 16-team league, and ponder its next move.

Philadelphia is always going to be attractive to MLS. Handing a large television market to its broadcast partners is more exciting than planting a flag in Milwaukee, for instance. If the Nevels group doesn't put all the pieces together in time for the forthcoming expansion awards, it is more than possible that a struggling existing team could eventually be moved here. In fact, as the last 10 years have shown, anything is possible when it comes to getting a soccer team in Philadelphia.

For the first time, though, possible is beginning to seem probable.


Contact columnist Bob Ford

at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.

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