Soccer faces uphill battle in Ottawa

It looks like Major League Soccer won’t be coming to Ottawa anytime soon.

The city is officially out of the running for a professional soccer franchise in 2010 after the announcement of new MLS franchises in Portland and Vancouver.

But Eugene Melnyk, who has led the bid for a new soccer team, is not giving up.

“Absolutely nothing has changed with respect to the level of effort and resources Senators Sports & Entertainment is placing toward our MLS expansion and stadium efforts in Ottawa,” Melnyk said in a statement to the media. “The main hurdle for us is to gain the city’s support for our proposed world-class stadium.”

News broke March 14 that Portland had struck a deal with its city council for a new stadium. However, there were reports MLS commissioner Don Garber would all but assure Melnyk an expansion team if he got the go-ahead from city council to build the proposed $110 million soccer stadium in Kanata. Melnyk never got that approval.

According to the MLS commissioner, Ottawa missed out because the city delayed its decision in the debate over whether to approve a new soccer stadium, or opt for a football facility.

“If they choose a soccer stadium then Ottawa has a good chance to get a team,” said MLS Commissioner Don Garber from Vancouver. “But if they don’t, the city doesn’t have a shot.”

The city’s final decision is scheduled to come down April 22.

Melnyk, owner of Senators Sports & Entertainment, says Ottawa still has a fighting chance for an MLS team in 2012.

“I know firsthand how committed Commissioner Garber is to expanding Major League Soccer’s footprint in North America, including Canada,” says Melnyk, who wants to build a soccer-only stadium in Kanata. “The league’s focus on expansion will remain strong and I remain committed as ever to bringing Major League Soccer to the nation’s capital.”

The recent announcement of the Portland and Vancouver MLS franchises is good news for Jeff Hunt and his group, which includes three local real estate developers. They are trying to re-develop Ottawa’s only outdoor stadium, the historic Frank Clair Stadium, to bring back football. The stadium will remain as FieldTurf, an artificial grass surface that feels a lot like grass, and would only be meant for professional football.

Hunt’s group received a conditional franchise from the CFL March 25 of last year, and they were quickly approaching the one-year deadline to bring a franchise back to Ottawa. The CFL granted them a six-month extension in early March.

Both groups submitted their last proposals March 18. However, the city says it can only afford to support one of the bids and it may support neither. Melnyk says Ottawa deserves a soccer stadium.

“[The stadium] is a focal point to bringing Major League Soccer to our city, but the need for a stadium extends far beyond that,” Melnyk told the CBC. “Every world-class city has a world-class outdoor stadium.”

Hunt says it’s not just a battle of two sports, but a battle of two developments, and two areas.

“This is so much bigger than one sports franchise or another,” he told the Ottawa Citizen. “It’s about the future of the city and the downtown area, not who’s stronger. It’s a question of which location makes most sense, which project makes the most sense.”

The public will have its say on which sport and stadium they want on April 20.