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MLS in St. Petersburg? Much depends on Al Lang Field

ST. PETERSBURG — Orlando will have a Major League Soccer franchise next year. Miami has an inside track for one. And cities across the country, from Minneapolis to San Antonio to Las Vegas, are eyeing one.

In the afterglow of a World Cup that captivated Americans, Tampa Bay Rowdies owner Bill Edwards is also considering capitalizing on the wave of soccer enthusiasm. He has entertained the possibility that his team — playing in the second-tier North American Soccer League — can move up to the big time.

"I would not rule that out. St. Pete is the perfect place to have an MLS team," Edwards said in a recent interview.

A previous MLS franchise in Tampa — the Tampa Bay Mutiny — folded in 2001, but the sports and cultural landscape has become much more favorable in the past decade, he said.

Still, a formidable range of obstacles stand between St. Petersburg and the premier U.S. soccer league.

First and foremost: an adequate stadium. The aging Al Lang wouldn't meet major league standards.

Edwards and former Mayor Rick Baker, who works for Edwards, have both talked with city officials about converting the stadium to a facility primarily for soccer. City officials, while intrigued, still prefer to allow the historic venue to be used for multiple purposes, said Dave Metz, interim city development administrator.

There's also a ticking clock: MLS has announced plans to expand to 24 teams by 2020. Yet all but one of the expansion spots seem spoken for, with teams planned for New York and Atlanta, as well as Orlando and, possibly, Miami.

Las Vegas, Sacramento, Calif., and Minneapolis are all strong contenders for the final spot.

To have a chance, the Rowdies need more fans. The team averages 5,000 fans a game.

"If I can get 8,000 people coming to 15 games a year, it'd be a no-brainer to take it up a level to the MLS," Edwards said.

Another challenge is the proximity of another MLS franchise a little more than an hour away.

Would the 19-team league allow two franchises in Central Florida? MLS didn't return calls for comment.

Territorial rights for the Orlando City Soccer Club are still being negotiated, team spokesman Jhamie Chin said.

Edwards said he doesn't see Orlando as a hindrance.

"How many people from here go to see their basketball team?" he said of the Orlando Magic.

Upgrades at Al Lang would be costly, and it's unclear where that money would come from.

Getting enough out-of-towners to justify bed tax dollars for an Al Lang soccer makeover would be a stretch, said Kevin King, chief of staff for Mayor Rick Kriseman. The Tourist Development Council, which makes recommendations on how to distribute bed tax money, focuses on attracting overnight hotel guests, he said.

"The question mark is: What are soccer fans? Are they people that come from out of town? Probably not, certainly not in this stadium," King said.

And with 17 home games in an MLS season, a soccer-only stadium would sit empty for much of the year. That's one reason his boss prefers a multiuse stadium, King said.

Edwards said he'll honor his contract at Al Lang until 2016 but has made indirect inquiries about an MLS team. He thinks the city's changing demographics and growing interest in soccer bode well for the future.

"You've got to be able to show it's the right place to put it," he said. "But it's a younger town and getting younger every day."

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago @tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

MLS in St. Petersburg? Much depends on Al Lang Field 07/26/14 [Last modified: Saturday, July 26, 2014 10:26pm]
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