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World Cup decision critical for U.S.

Whatever your opinion of Major League Soccer, almost everyone will agree the league is no cash cow. Far from it.

So why would the relatively frugal MLS happily fork over $2 million to the USA Bid Committee, the lead element in a chase to deliver World Cup 2022 to this country? Why would MLS donate such a handsome sum this late in the game, when things already look so promising ahead of Thursday's massive announcement?

Because everyone associated with MLS knows exactly what's at stake. They recognize the spectacular growth opportunities World Cup 2022 could create for the league and domestic soccer in general. So grand are the stakes, so golden the rewards, that MLS commissioner Don Garber and the league owners were happy to toss more cash into the kitty to fill any remaining gaps.

For months now Garber and U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, who also chairs the USA Bid Committee, have been talking about the unprecedented 12-year runway, the dozen potentially fruitful years between Thursday's announcement and World Cup 2022. Talk about a landmark period of leverage for domestic soccer. That's all assuming that the U.S. bid can trump efforts from Australia, Japan, Qatar and South Korea in a process already dented by corruption.

"If we do prevail, then between now and 2022 we will have a 12-year run that will change this league and the sport in America forever," Garber said last week.

Garber is confident that it can happen. Qatar has oodles of money behind its bid, but has significant weather challenges -- it's prohibitively hot. Australia has an outside shot, although China's emergence as a potential 2026 host could complicate the Aussie bid. Same for Japan and South Korea, countries further challenged by another impediment, having hosted a World Cup even more recently than the United States.

Garber met with a small group of reporters and bloggers one day before the MLS Cup final in Toronto. While the commissioner didn't talk about specific opportunities for his league -- now an 18-team operation but one still seeking aggressive growth-- it's not hard to decode his messages.

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Outside of the obvious, the boon to development of fans and players, it's mostly about leverage. Imagine Garber and Gulati (in his role as U.S. Soccer president) going to the networks for contract talks. Consider their favorable place at the bargaining table as they bundled MLS and national team matches with World Cup rights. It would add instant value to MLS contests, to World Cup qualifiers, to Women's World Cup rights, etc. Suddenly, elements that might not have been on the table previously (such as a more favorable slot for the MLS Cup final, just to name one) could be in play as networks keen on securing World Cup rights become more agreeable.

At the local level, a city with designs on those World Cup delights will need to develop a regional plan to promote and enhance the sport. As many as eight of the 18 U.S. cities currently under consideration will not make the cut, so they'll need to improve their odds by pandering a little to MLS or to U.S. Soccer. The league could leverage it all kinds of ways, by attracting higher franchise fees for newcomers or by requesting tax breaks for stadiums in existing markets, for instance. Or it might mean the development of a blue-ribbon training site, which a close-by MLS side would use around the small World Cup window.

It all feeds into a lucrative growth cycle. Leveraging these opportunities will create more favorable financial situations. That provides more cash for player acquisition and marketing opportunities to increase awareness of the stars yet to arrive in MLS. Presumably, these stars and the increased quality they create will lure more people to the stadiums, which will add more money and more sponsors to propagate the cycle.

MLS could do all this without a World Cup acting as a huge fulcrum -- but the pace of the process would look very different. If the current pace is "X," a World Cup 2022 boost could speed up the pace of development to 3X or 4X.

Beyond MLS, Gulati has long stressed the infrastructure element of the U.S. bid. Specifically, a land blessed with an embarrassment of venue riches won't have to spend for facilities or the supporting, physical components. Rather, they can use development money to enhance the game itself through after-school programs, creation of inner-city fields, promotion of the women's game, etc.

Garber and Gulati say they speak to one another almost every day. Both say they share a vision of what soccer could look like here -- and so much of that vision revolves around a successful outcome Thursday in Zurich.

"That vision has the league as a focal point," Garber said recently as he toured MLS cities in the run-up to MLS Cup. "Because nobody disagrees with the fact ... that if we want soccer to succeed, Major League Soccer needs to get better. We need to have better quality. Need to have better facilities. We need better training grounds, need to have better player development, higher quality environments for players to compete in. We need to have more games and better games on television and all those things. So a lot of our attention is focused on our World Cup Bid."

Consider that the tremendous legacy of the 1994 World Cup was in establishing the sport in this country, about positioning soccer so that it could be mentioned alongside the bedrock sports in American culture.

It established MLS, the starting point for soccer to be taken seriously here past youth level. It provided the infrastructure and proper backdrop for a very successful Women's World Cup in 1999, a breakthrough moment in America's recognition of the sport. In the big picture, it moved the sport past an unattractive sticking point; soccer had previously been fastened to outlier status, that funny foreign game most people played in elementary school and then grew out of.

The 1994 World Cup established soccer as Americana, as a piece of the fabric of American life. Now, the legacy of World Cup 2022 here would be about digging down into the nitty-gritty, about cooking up ways to make the game better.

"The legacy, the upside of a market in a country like the United States, to be more engaged in the world's game, is something that is unique and extraordinary," Gulati said last week in Toronto. "One of our goals is to go from 100 million who watch the World Cup to 200 million. There aren't many countries who are bidding that can do that. Size matters."

POTENTIAL U.S. CITIES

The 18 U.S. bid cities for the 2022 World Cup, a list that will be culled to 10-12 as plans are finalized in years to come:

AtlantaBaltimoreBostonDallasDenverHoustonIndianapolisKansas CityLos AngelesMiamiNashvilleNew YorkPhiladelphiaPhoenix-GlendaleSan DiegoSeattleTampaWashington, D.C.

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