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USL Division One Expansion in Canada Part Three: Victoria

Well, folks, let's get the easy one over with.

I'm a Victorian myself. Victoria is a lovely little city with a large immigrant population and a climate that seems hand-crafted to the beautiful game. Grass grows all year 'round, properly watered. Rain isn't as much a problem as in Vancouver, in spite of the stereotypes. And the Victoria Highlanders, an expansion USL Premier Development League team which played badly and missed the playoffs, drew splendidly for the USL PDL and had an average attendance that beat several USL Division One teams.

Also, the Highlanders' owner once owned half the grocery stores on Vancouver Island, and is so rich he could keep the Canadian football blogosphere stocked in liquor for five or six minutes. Victoria's attracted a few top-flight staff, including former Canadian national Colin Miller (recently departed to join his family running USL PDL Abbotsford). The organization has made noise from day one about their USL-1 aspirations as soon as the Whitecaps move up.

Splendid! May as well take deposit on season tickets now!

Not so fast, hombre.

Victoria is a lovely city for USL-1, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's a lovely location. When Portland and Vancouver join MLS in 2011, the USL won't have any first- or second-division teams west of Minnesota. Road trips, particularly for teams like Puerto Rico, would be horrifying. Travel expenses would be stratospheric. Unless USL embarks on a program of general western expansion, the USL Highlanders would have to throw cash around like snow in a blizzard just to convince the other teams to let them in.

Stadia are a problem as well. Victoria has three mid-sized outdoor facilities that can host football matches: Centennial Stadium at the University of Victoria (grass, capacity 5,000), Royal Athletic Park in downtown Victoria (grass, capacity 4,247 but easily expandable), and the home of the Highlanders, the ironically named City Center Stadium way the fuck out in Langford (turf, 2,000-ish with standing room). City Center obviously won't do without expansion, which is possible but only to a limited extent (plus, have I mentioned it's way the fuck out in Langford?) Centennial Stadium is a dump, and not in the sense of "not enough concessions and the washrooms smell bad" but rather "if you see a memorable game you can pull your seat out of the crumbling concrete and take it home as a keepsake".

Aside from building a new stadium, which is essentially impossible, Royal Athletic Park is the only long-term solution. 5,000 will get you started for USL-1 and it's expandable to a tolerable capacity by putting bleachers on the north end, reaching 11,000 with temporary seats when it hosted matches for the U-20 World Cup. There isn't enough on-site parking, but the parkades of downtown are close enough that you're certain to find a spot if you're willing to hike. Bus connections a block or two away are excellent.

Except, goddamn it, Royal Athletic Park is currently hosting a baseball team as well as the Pacific Coast Soccer League's Victoria United. USL-1 teams have played on baseball grounds before but it's probably everybody's least favourite way to play football. Moreover, there's been a considerable amount of money poured into Royal Athletic Park over the last eighteen months to make it more suitable for baseball. Pouring even more money into it to make it suitable for professional soccer probably won't get council's motor running.

The stadium issue is a stumbling block. It's surmountable. The travel issue is another stumbling block. It's also surmountable. The market can clearly handle USL-1-level soccer, drawing nearly 2,000 fans per night to watch shoddy amateurs, but two waist-high stumbling blocks may be enough to dissuade Highlanders owner Alex Campbell from trying. It's significant that, since Portland had their bid to MLS officially accepted, there have been a lot fewer rumours about a USL-1 move coming from connected sources. Those in the Victoria soccer community who keep their ears close to the ground are more pessimistic now than they were when the Highlanders were just an ugly logo and people were wondering if five hundred paying fans would show up.