Garber says MLS plans to add teams

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Major League Soccer lost half as much money this season as last and will consider adding as many as four teams by 2006.

Commissioner Don Garber said yesterday that the 10-team league's plan is to eventually double in size. Possible cities for the more immediate expansion include Seattle, Atlanta, Cleveland, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Tulsa, Okla.

Garber said the league expects to find two new investors, and probably will make a decision on which cities will get teams next year. He wouldn't name potential investors.

A bigger league might create a national television market that MLS has so far lacked.

Garber spoke at a state-of-the-game discussion ahead of tomorrow's MLS Cup between the New England Revolution and the Los Angeles Galaxy in Foxboro, Mass.

Garber would not give a timetable for expanding to 20 teams, or for when the 7-year-old MLS will turn a profit.

"Our business is in better shape than it ever was," Garber said. "As long as we remain moving in the right direction, our investors will remain interested."

Garber would not say how much the league lost, but court testimony in a recent lawsuit by the players showed that MLS lost $250 million in its first five years. The commissioner attributed this year's improvement to increased revenues and the folding of money-draining teams in Miami and the Tampa, Fla., area.

Television ratings are down 5 to 6 percent, though Garber cited a 20 percent bump after players returned from the World Cup.

"It's not something we were concerned about, and it's not something ESPN is concerned about, overall," Garber said. "Many markets are beating hockey on local television."

Among the other changes Garber discussed:

• Expanding the schedule from 28 to 30 games and running later in the year, thus putting it more in line with the international game. That would force fans to sit through increasingly cold weather — next year's championship could be in mid-November — but keep the league from having to compete in the busiest sports time of the year.

"Our competition is at its peak right now," he said.

• Changing the playoff format from its first-to-five-points system used this year to a round-robin, one-game or two-game series — all more widely accepted in the international sport.

The league hopes to have a sellout of more than 60,000 for the MLS Cup.

Ticket-sellers from New York and Washington, D.C., have been brought in to handle the extra volume because the supposedly neutral-site game will be played at the Revolution's home stadium.

The league lucked out that the NFL's New England Patriots — the defending Super Bowl champions — have a bye this week.

"I don't think we ever thought as we started that we would be approaching a sellout at Gillette Stadium," Garber said, though he added there were no plans to stop scheduling the championship at a neutral site.

"You can't expect this every year, but it's an exciting time for us."