The midday sun was beating down on a forlorn 9-acre section of Miami's Overtown neighborhood last month, and there was not a soul in the streets. Boarded-up shops faced the lots on one side, and public housing on two others. High-rise apartments and office towers in downtown, markers of the city's rapid resurgence, glistened not far off.
The nearly empty land will get a makeover of its own in the coming months if Major League Soccer awards an expansion team to an investment group led by David Beckham, perhaps the world's most glamorous former soccer player. The issue will be on the agenda again when the league's owners meet today in Chicago, where MLS hosted its annual All-Star Game, but a vote on approval could be closer than ever.
Beckham's bid for a franchise, once thought to be foundering, now faces little opposition. If it is approved this year, Miami Beckham United — the team's working title — will become the league's 24th club as MLS rushes to expand to 28 teams by 2020, and shovels and excavators will soon begin digging on the site in Overtown, a former county truck depot.
It has been a long time in coming. As part of the initial MLS contract that lured him from Europe to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007, Beckham was promised the opportunity to buy a team in Miami in return for a $25 million expansion fee if he played at least five years in the league. (He wound up staying six.) The fee, once viewed as a potential windfall for MLS, now looks to be a savvy bargain for Beckham; the other cities vying for expansion approval this year will pay $150 million.
That nine-figure discount has led some owners to grumble that the league should find a way to get out of the commitment, but others believe that just as Beckham's arrival helped bolster the credibility of MLS with U.S. fans and foreign players, his return as an owner would raise its global profile again.
The question none of them can answer is whether even Beckham — who has at last assembled a credible group of investors and acquired the land for a privately financed stadium near downtown — can make a dent in the South Florida market. MLS commissioner Don Garber folded the league's previous team in South Florida, an experiment undone by brutal summer weather and fans who seemed to prefer baseball, football and frolicking by the ocean to professional soccer.
"Miami is no longer just a beach town," Garber said. "We would not have gotten into Miami if we could not be in the urban core. We want to be part of something bigger than we are, urban development."
After failed attempts to acquire land for a stadium at three other locations, Beckham's current plan has cleared nearly every financial, political and legal hurdle. Still, there is no guarantee the group — which now includes Todd Boehly, a part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers; Marcelo Claure, chief executive of Sprint; and Tim Leiweke, a veteran MLS executive well versed in stadium projects — can succeed where others have not.
Despite a large Latino population with links to Caribbean, Central American and South American countries where soccer is king, South Florida has had a checkered history with pro soccer, in part because the tug of international teams is so strong. Over the weekend, more than 60,000 fans paid dearly for tickets to see FC Barcelona play Real Madrid in an exhibition match in the Miami Dolphins' stadium.
The enthusiasm for the local product has been far more muted. The Fusion, the MLS team that played in nearby Fort Lauderdale, was shut down by Garber in 2001 after only four seasons. The city's top club, 2-year-old Miami FC of the North American Soccer League, has had immediate success on the field but plays in a college stadium and draws about 6,200 fans a game.
Support at the gate is one concern, but there also are questions about the 25,000-seat stadium that Beckham's group has planned for a rundown corner of a historically black neighborhood. Beckham, who was not made available for an interview, settled on the tight spot after failing to acquire land at two locations near Biscayne Bay and on a third plot next to the Miami Marlins' stadium in Little Havana, less than 2 miles away.
To crowbar a stadium into the land in Overtown, a few blocks from I-95 and the Miami River, the Beckham group would not build any parking. Instead, fans would have to walk from lots as much as 15 minutes away, or from one of the three nearby commuter rail stations.
That may be an urban planner's dream, and it fits Garber's vision of soccer teams in downtown locations, but it appears to be a naive assumption to residents of Miami, where the heat can be oppressive, rainstorms can strike at any time and driving is a way of life.
"I want Beckham to be in the league, and he's the guy who can make Miami work," said one MLS owner who asked not to be named because the vote on the team had not taken place. "But when we sit in the room, that's what we talk about."
Residents of the adjacent Spring Garden neighborhood also worry about traffic and noise spilling into their quiet residential enclave, and fear that concerts and other events will fill the stadium on nights when the team isn't playing.
"The soccer people will tell you there will only be 15 games a year, but we think this is a ruse for concerts, and we don't want it in our backyard," said Ernest Martin, a former president of the Spring Garden Civic Association. "It's all part of dumping undesirable urban projects into Overtown."
Leiweke, who is steering the stadium project for the Beckham group, is undeterred. No tax dollars are being spent on the stadium, he said, and he suggested fans, particularly the younger ones the team and the league want to attract, would be comfortable ditching their cars and marching to games from nearby bars and restaurants.
Leiweke pointed to the new 25,500-seat stadium that was built in a similar neighborhood in Orlando and noted the MLS team that calls it home, Orlando City SC, has played to capacity crowds.
"You have to find a balance between what the stadium will look like in 10 years and building in a neighborhood where you don't have to charge $500 a ticket," Leiweke said. Of Orlando, he added, "The day-of-game experience has been positive, and the value of the property around the stadium has increased dramatically."
Local officials pronounced themselves pleased with the plan's economic potential. But in Miami, where a bloated deal for the Marlins stadium has turned public financing for sports stadiums into a toxic issue, the financing plan is what ultimately persuaded lawmakers to get behind the deal.
The Beckham group "asked for public assistance initially, but I said we weren't going to give them any tax deals," said Carlos Giménez, mayor of Miami-Dade County. "The stadium by itself will not bring development. But more people will be walking through the area, so you're seeing development in Overtown because of growth in downtown. It's just geography."
Geography is critical for Luis Garcia, whose family has owned a fish restaurant on the Miami River just a few minutes by foot from the stadium site. In recent years, upscale restaurants have opened nearby, part of the spillover from downtown. Garcia, whose father first bought property in the area decades ago, said young soccer fans would help revitalize the area.
"David Beckham has validated my father's vision," Garcia said over a lunch of fish sandwiches. The stadium "will be an economic engine."
Before that engine can start, Beckham will have to get zoning and other approvals, likely to come next year. Then, assuming MLS owners give Beckham the green light, he will have to assemble a roster, sign a few foreign stars and start the hard work of selling tickets to skeptical fans.
"The history of soccer and pro sports teams in Miami has been spotty at best," said David Downs, a former commissioner of the NASL, who has lived in the city.
"Getting over the political hurdles is a start. But that's only the beginning of the challenges."