Expansion talk has heated up again in the Major Soccer League, with Pittsburgh and Phoenix making bids to join the league for the 1991-92 season.
Baltimore Blast owner Ed Hale, a member of the MSL expansion committee, said last week that official announcements on Pittsburgh and Phoenix becoming the ninth and 10th teams in the league could come as soon as the MSL All-Star Game, which is set for Feb. 13 in Kansas City, Mo.
"They both have a shot to make it by the All-Star Game," said Hale. "And we still have Buffalo [N.Y.] and Charlotte [N.C.] in the picture."
Pittsburgh appears to be the closest to getting an expansion team because the city has a prospective owner (Frank Fuhrer) and president (Bernie Mullen) in place.
Fuhrer owned the Pittsburgh Spirit franchise, which was an original member of the MSL and was in the league seven years before folding in 1986.
Mullen was the executive vice president of the Pittsburgh Pirates and recently went on a tour of MSL cities to get an in-depth look at the league.
Mullen's first stop was in Baltimore to watch a Blast game.
The prospective owners in Phoenix have checked out the possibility of playing one season at Arizona State before a new arena in the city is completed.
Speaking of arenas, the lack of an arena still is the hang-up for a potential expansion team in Charlotte.
George Shinn, the owner of the Charlotte Hornets in the National Basketball Association, wants to bring an MSL franchise to Charlotte but can't find a place for the team to play. The Charlotte Coliseum, home of the Hornets, would be a possibility, but high rent and scheduling difficulties are obstacles.
Buffalo also has run into problems in putting together a franchise bid.
Both Charlotte and Buffalo were thought to be close to joining the MSL last year about this time.
MSL commissioner Earl Foreman has said in the past several months that Anaheim, Calif., could have an expansion team in place by the 1992-93 season.
Foreman said last week that Anaheim still is working to meet that target date.
All the expansion talk is a positive sign for the league, but there also are some bad vibes around the MSL about attendance.
The Tacoma Stars are averaging 5,500 a game through their first eight games even though the team is leading the Western Division.
Owners of the Stars indicated last week that they would not operate the team next season if attendance didn't pick up the remainder of the season.
The attendance picture for the Cleveland Crunch also is bleak, with fewer than 3,000 fans showing up for two games already this season.
However, it appears that Cleveland owners George Hoffman and Stuart Lichter are prepared to stay in business despite heavy financial losses.
And there is some more bad news for the MSL.
According to a league source, Ron Fowler, majority owner of the six-time MSL champion San Diego Sockers, is ready to sell his share of the team.
Fowler is one of the stronger owners in the league and twice has stepped forward to save the Sockers franchise from folding.
Hale said the MSL will suffer a major setback when Fowler leaves.
"Ron Fowler is bright, energetic and a gutsy owner," said Hale. "He'll go in the locker room and scream at his players to get the best out of them. That's not my style, but you have to admire him for doing it. He's one of the top owners in the league, and I will personally miss him. He's been a good friend."
Hale said that Fowler most likely is selling his share of the Sockers because "his business [Mason Distributing, which distributes wine and beer] takes him to Florida a lot and to Belgium often."
Baltimore's chances of being one of eight to 12 cities to play host to the 1994 World Cup competition are only about "5 percent" now, Hale said last week.
Hale and Maryland Bays owner John Liparini have tried to organize a new bid for the World Cup after the city of Baltimore said earlier this year that it wasn't interested in hosting the matches.
"The World Cup Committee has told us our chances are not very good since the city already turned it [World Cup] down," Hale said.