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Rowdies to pursue move to MLS, Al Lang renovations

Bill Edwards, pictured at a 2013 news conference. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Published Dec. 7, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — Tampa Bay Rowdies owner Bill Edwards wants to become part of first division Major League Soccer, announcing a campaign toward that goal during a highly-attended event before fans at the Birchwood in downtown St. Petersburg on Tuesday night.

A presentation included renderings of renovated Al Lang Stadium, which would have to be expanded well past its current capacity of around 7,000 for an MLS franchise. Edwards said renovations would be privately funded.

But for any of it to happen, he needs the appropriate fan support. There will be no 18,000-seat Al Lang without an MLS franchise.

"I need a waiting list," said Edwards, who seeks enough new season ticket holders to impress the MLS.

The campaign, centered around the hash tag MLS2StPete, is similar to other cities (Cincinnati, St. Louis, Nashville) which will be vying alongside St. Petersburg. The league has 20 teams, with four more to join in 2018, and a possible four more beyond that where the Rowdies hope to fall in.

Edwards has been speaking with MLS commissioner Don Garber for some time about the move, even as the Rowdies switched from the NASL to what Edwards calls a more stable USL after the recently completed season.

"The commissioner kept referencing how each of the top 10 (media) markets has an MLS team, and we're No. 11. He sounded intrigued. I'm intrigued too," Edwards said.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman expressed excitement, calling the city and MLS a "perfect fit" while former Mayor Rick Baker, now president of the Edwards Group, laid out the four requirements for a franchise.

"The first is a strong ownership group, and we own that space," he said. "Second, a strong media market, we own that space as well. Number three is a stadium site, and stadium plan. We would have the most gorgeous (waterfront) view not just in soccer, but in every sport in the country."

The fourth — community support — seems to be the stickler.

"If I get enough people to buy seats, I'll add them," Edwards said after the news conference. "It has to be enough to make me spend my money. If not, why waste it?"

Edwards told the enthusiastic crowd, which included MLS representatives, that Al Lang would remain the site of the Rowdies. Improvements, rumored to be in the $80 million range if they take place, would lead to filled-out east end of the stadium where the old baseball centerfield wall now resides.

Orlando City has already made the MLS jump from the USL, considered the American Soccer Federation's third division but gaining ground and perhaps surpassing the struggling NASL as its second.

Edwards said he has a meeting planned with Garber next month.

"We've got all the pieces in place. Our goal is to bring Major League Soccer to St. Petersburg, where it belongs," Edwards said.

In a statement from MLS, executive vice president Dan Courtemanche said: "Major League Soccer has met with Bill Edwards and is aware of the Rowdies' campaign to bring an MLS expansion team to the Tampa/St. Petersburg market. There is a rich tradition of professional soccer in the area dating back more than 40 years, and we are impressed with their vision and plans for a world-class soccer stadium on the downtown waterfront in St. Petersburg. We look forward to learning more about their plans in the coming months."

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