Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Sports

Jones: Not sure the MLS odds are in the Rowdies' favor

Know what would be great? If Major League Soccer awarded an expansion franchise to St. Petersburg.

Know what seems unlikely to happen? Major League Soccer awarding an expansion franchise to St. Petersburg.

If you're a local soccer fan, time to start getting nervous.

Whether you want to call it reading the tea leaves or a gut feeling or reading between the lines, it just feels like St. Pete's bid to get into the MLS is a long shot.

And it just got a little longer.

The MLS already has plans to put teams in Los Angeles and Miami. After that, MLS is looking to expand by four teams with 12 cities in the mix. Two will be named in December, then two more sometime after that.

In the latest "power rankings" by SoccerNation.com, Tampa Bay is listed eighth.

Part of the problem is that Miami's group, spearheaded by soccer legend David Beckham, is getting its act together after coming close to falling out of MLS plans.

That's bad news for St. Pete. With a team already in Orlando, you wonder if MLS would be comfortable putting three teams within a few hundred miles of one another. High-profile soccer has already failed once here and in Miami and it would be a huge risk for the MLS to try both markets again.

St. Pete's best hope was that the Miami bid would disintegrate. That's not happening and — conspiracy theory alert — you can't help but wonder if MLS was talking up St. Pete all this time in order to give Miami a kick in the rear.

At the MLS All-Star Game earlier this week, MLS commissioner Don Garber said, "We believe the time is right — finally — for Miami to become a great MLS city."

Still waiting for the commissioner to make such a proclamation about St. Petersburg.

In fact, during an interview with Fox Sports 1 during halftime of the All-Star Game, Garber mentioned several possible expansion locations before bringing up Tampa Bay — which felt like an afterthought, as if Garber was saying it out of obligation rather than serious consideration.

Maybe that's reading too much into it and maybe Garber and MLS have a very high opinion of St. Pete.

The other sticking point for St. Pete is a stadium issue that suddenly and surprisingly has become a hot-button topic.

All along, we thought the stadium question was all set. It was going to be Al Lang, where the Rowdies currently play and where owner Bill Edwards is committed to spending up to $80 million to expand the stadium to at least 18,000 seats if it lands an MLS team.

Then St. Petersburg mayor Rick Kriseman dropped an intriguing notion when he went on WDAE 620-AM. He floated the idea of Tropicana Field (or the land where the Trop now sits) being turned into a soccer stadium.

Almost immediately, Edwards and the MLS said they are committed to Al Lang as the current and future home of the Rowdies.

So where did this idea of the Trop being the future of the Rowdies come from? As Times columnist John Romano points out, you can't help but wonder if, somewhere well behind the scenes, MLS orchestrated this idea. And if you believe that, you would also have to believe it's because MLS isn't crazy about Al Lang.

Ultimately, this isn't so much about how great the Trop site is, but how questionable the Al Lang site might be.

No matter how much money Edwards spends and no matter how swanky Al Lang is dressed up, it always is going to be on the smaller side.

But all this Trop talk seems moot anyway. Considering all the intriguing possibilities for the Trop site, it seems highly unlikely it will ever be used for soccer.

So what can St. Pete do now?

Nothing except wait and hope that some of the other cities in the MLS race — Sacramento, Cincinnati, San Diego, San Antonio, Nashville, Raleigh, Phoenix, Detroit, St. Louis, Charlotte and Indianapolis — either can't get their stadium plans together or realize that the $150 million expansion fee is just plum crazy. Throw in stadium fees and the cost of an MLS start-up and we might be talking about several hundred million dollars before anyone is kicking a soccer ball.

I still shake my head at how much it all costs. Maybe a few cities will shake their heads right out of the line.

It would be awesome for the best soccer in this country to be played in Tampa Bay.

Unfortunately, it feels like a long shot.

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