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MLS Makes Bid for Relevance

Beginning next year, ESPN2 will broadcast 26 regular-season MLS games on Thursday nights from April to November, as well as three playoff games each season. The games are to be promoted across ESPN's various programs and Web sites, Skipper said.

Meanwhile, ESPN's sister Disney network, ABC, will air the MLS season-opening game, the All-Star game and the MLS Cup, the championship game.

"I'm the latest knucklehead to think soccer is going to work in the United States," Skipper said. "But it's impossible for me to believe that we can't move this forward" with ESPN and ABC.

"I'd like to say something to those in Salt Lake City," Garber said, "who question the viability of MLS and therefore of an investment" in a stadium. "The time is right for soccer in this country," he said.

Clearly irritated by what Garber portrayed as misconceptions about the MLS, he cited some recent achievements: the ESPN deal; "more than $1 billion" in investments since 2005; rising team prices, including $100 million paid by Red Bull, the Austrian energy-drink maker, for the New York franchise; and "blue-chip partnerships," such as the $150 million, 10-year deal with Adidas, the German sneaker and sports equipment manufacturer.

Garber also reiterated the MLS three-part strategy for "slow, steady growth" -- player development to produce more competitive games; league expansion; and - the sore issue in Salt Lake City -- building so-called "soccer-specific" stadiums to ensure that teams play in a stadium "they can call their own."

As for expansion, the MLS is adding FC Toronto in 2007, followed by another team in 2008, and two more by 2010, Garber said. Cities interested in having a soccer team include Milwaukee, Cleveland, St. Louis, Seattle, Miami and San Diego, he said. Another interested city, San Jose, lost its franchise this year.

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