Houston welcomes MLS franchise
MLS got a chilly reception in this Southern city Friday but nobody seemed to mind.
The league made it official Thursday that it is moving the Earthquakes franchise here after failing to reach an agreement for a new soccer-specific stadium in San Jose. And despite temperatures in the mid-40s at the announcement ceremony outside of city hall Friday, everyone was upbeat about the future of MLS in Houston.
"When I first got here," joked AEG president and CEO Timothy J. Leiweke, "I saw the frozen fountain out there and I thought maybe we were here to announce an NHL franchise.
"But we're excited about the team we're moving here. This is the best franchise in the league and while we're sad to leave San Jose where our players and coaches and their families have lived, we're excited about coming to Houston."
Coach Dominic Kinnear and the two players he brought to the press conference, 2005 Goalkeeper of the Year Pat Onstad and team captain Wade Barrett, didn't seem to mind the cold weather.
"I'm from Canada," Onstad said. "Thanks for the weather today. I feel right at home."
Houston Mayor Bill White, two council members and other city and county officials attended the ceremony and sounded just as pleased with getting the team that finished the regular season with the league's best record last year.
"The face of Houston sports is changing," county commissioner Sylvia Garcia said. "This is a great day for Harris County and Houston."
But while a new stadium was a major point of contention in San Jose, the new Houston team has agreed to play its first three years in Robertson Stadium, home of the University of Houston's NCAA football team.
"We are committed to building a soccer-specific stadium here," Leiweke said. "We're looking for a private-public partnership to fund it. Mayor White, it won't cost you anything."
UH athletic director Dave Maggard believes his facility will change the minds of franchise officials. Just before coming to Houston in 2002, Maggard worked as a consultant to the Sacramento (Calif.) Sports Commission trying to help it get a soccer expansion team.
"A lot of soccer teams want a soccer-specific stadium," Maggard said. "But that's not real easy to do. And you look around and you won't see those soccer-specific stadiums, but the ones they like are the stadiums like ours that are intimate and comfortable.
"That's fine if they want to spend $50 million on a new stadium. But I think if they stay around long enough at our stadium, they'll see that they can't find a better venue for soccer. They're going to enjoy it so much and save so much money, they're going to want to stay with us."
Officials also announced Friday that local sports figure Oliver Luck will be the team's first president. Luck, a former Houston Oilers quarterback in the 1980s, has been the CEO of the Harris County Houston Sports Authority working to get new facilities, and the MLS franchise, in Houston over the last eight years.
"One of the major reasons this will work in Houston is that this city has a diverse demographic and ethnic makeup that is the kind you will see all over the country in 50 years," Luck said. "We have a large Hispanic population as well as European and Oriental and 85 languages are spoken in this city. This franchise will just be 50 years ahead of the country."
Luck said he had no attendance projections but believes, "San Jose averaged 12-13,000 and I think we can top that."
Officials plan a name-the-team contest in January and Luck says he expects to hit the ground running immediately.
"One thing we don't have yet are tickets," Luck said. "We have a lot to do, but I know everything will pull together.
"If we can take on hundreds of thousands of Hurricane [Katrina] refugees and help them the way this city did, we can launch a soccer franchise in the next few months."
Jim Carley is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.