OTTAWA -- Even with four other cities in the running to land a Major League Soccer expansion franchise, the biggest threat to Ottawa's bid may be right in its own backyard.
MLS commissioner Don Garber and president Mark Abbott were in the capital Tuesday and gave a glowing review to the city's bid for one of two spots available for the league's 2011 expansion plans.
There's just one problem: the lack of approval for a soccer-specific stadium.
"That's really the biggest hurdle that needs to be overcome for us to be able to approve an expansion team here," Garber said during a news conference at Scotiabank Place, home of the Ottawa Senators.
It's the NHL club's owner, Eugene Melnyk, who is in talks with government officials to secure both the land and partial funding required to build a proposed $90 million stadium near the arena in the city's west end.
At the same time, another group has been granted a conditional Canadian Football League franchise and is also looking for the city's approval to redevelop Lansdowne Park in its downtown.
It's been made clear to all parties involved that the city will approve one or the other -- or neither.
"The drawback is we don't yet have a definitive stadium resolution and that's the biggest drawback," Garber said after spending Monday and Tuesday in meetings with Melnyk's group and officials from all three levels of government.
"We have really great admiration for Eugene and his team. They came in to our board meeting at the end of November and really blew us away with their presentation. But we don't have a place to play," Garber said.
Ottawa is the last of five cities vying for an expansion franchise to be visited by MLS representatives. Miami, St. Louis, Portland, Ore., and Vancouver all have done so already and Garber expects to make an announcement by April.
Originally, seven cities submitted an official bid by the league's Oct. 15 deadline, but Montreal and Atlanta have since dropped out of the running.
The city of Ottawa will have to decide by March. The MLS needs an answer on Melnyk's proposal for a 20,000-seat stadium then and the CFL group's conditional offer expires in the middle of that month.
Melnyk is confident that his soccer group will win out. It will cost them a $40 million franchise fee and, although he wouldn't disclose how much of his own money he'll be putting into the stadium, he did say it would be a "substantial" amount.
"All I can say is that the conversations have been very, very positive," Melnyk said. "There's enthusiasm. They clearly understand the choices that have to be made and I think we agree, we walked away from all three meetings that we had."
With about 90,000 registered players in the region, Garber was impressed with Ottawa's grass-roots development and its group's plans for a stadium complex, which would also provide fields for public use and an academy.
However, he said it wouldn't be fair to the other interested parties to award Ottawa a franchise conditional on it getting approval for a stadium down the road.
"Without that commitment on the facility, it's just not a procedure that makes sense for us, or any sports league for that matter," Garber said.
Ottawa is trying to become the 14-team league's second Canadian franchise and follow in the footsteps of Toronto FC, which began play in 2007 and plays to sold-out crowds at BMO Field.
Garber called TFC the "blueprint" for the model MLS team and said the league would like to continue to expand into Canada but said U.S. television contracts and commercial opportunities would be taken into consideration, so it's possible that neither Vancouver or Ottawa could win a spot in this round of expansion.
"We talked in the U.S. about it becoming a soccer nation. Well, we believe Canada is already a soccer nation," Garber said. "It doesn't make sense to put odds on it, but we do want more teams in Canada. If it doesn't happen in the short term, it will happen in the long term, but that decision hasn't been made yet."