Michelle Kaufman: With David Beckham’s help, Miami perfect city for MLS’ next franchise

Go ahead, South Florida. Start believing.

This David Beckham thing just got a little more real.

It won’t happen today. It probably won’t happen before the end of the year. But sometime in 2014, expect an announcement that the world-famous soccer icon and his deep-pocketed friends are bringing Major League Soccer to Miami. By 2017, you could be sitting at a jam-packed waterfront stadium, overlooking the downtown skyline, watching pro soccer.

MLS commissioner Don Garber said very clearly in his State of the League address Tuesday that he wants a team in Miami, that Beckham and his group are the ones to do it, and they are working together to make it happen “as quickly as we can.”

While he is “mindful of the challenges that have existed” in this market throughout soccer history (as is this longtime soccer reporter and every long-suffering fan who has lived through various incarnations of teams and broken promises), Garber thinks MLS can work here this time because “Miami today, demographically, socially and politically is very different from the Miami of 2002, when we folded the Fusion.”

All true, as is the fact that this team would be where it was always meant to be, in the heart of Miami, smack dab in the center of the melting pot that is our city. It was, after all, called the Miami Fusion and its intended home was the Orange Bowl, overlooking the downtown skyline. If Beckham can secure a stadium site on our breathtaking and underutilized, waterfront, even better.

It seems the only thing standing in the way of a Beckham Miami deal is a viable stadium plan. The league prefers a privately-funded 25,000 to 30,000- seat soccer-specific stadium in the urban core of the city. Beckham’s group has explored 30 sites in Miami, and asked the county about leasing land on the southwest corner of the port.

“We are very excited about the opportunity of David putting together the ownership group and finalizing a stadium plan in downtown Miami, so we can end up having what we hope will be our 22nd team in a city that’s one of the largest in this country and has a very, very strong passionate soccer fan base,” Garber said. “But there is a lot of work that still needs to happen.”

He said Beckham and his business manager Simon Fuller, the British entrepreneur and American Idol creator, are in discussions with city and county officials about the Port of Miami site and other potential locations.

Beckham also has been securing financial backers, including Bolivian-born billionaire Marcelo Claure, owner of Miami-based Brightstar Corp., a global wireless distributor. He approached Heat star LeBron James about getting involved. Garber has been “spending a lot of time in Miami, quietly” working behind the scenes.

“We can’t go to Miami without the right stadium solution,” Garber said. “David understands that. The city understands that. It’s an indisputable fact. We hope they can put together a plan we can approve. We think it’s a great opportunity.”

MLS, which was founded 18 years ago, has 19 teams. New York City FC — co-owned by the New York Yankees and English club Manchester City — will be No. 20. Orlando City SC is No. 21, with both scheduled to begin play in 2015.

Miami and Atlanta are slated to be Nos. 22 and No. 23. Which order remains to be determined.

Garber’s comments came four days before the MLS Cup championship between Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake. Salt Lake was an expansion team in 2005 and has been to the playoffs six years in a row. Kansas City has had 35 consecutive sellouts, and league-wide there were 112 sellouts this season, “proving America has truly become a soccer nation.”

His vision is for MLS to be “one of the top leagues in the world” by 2022, and the key is raising quality of play, having great owners, great facilities and great brands. He believes the marriage of Beckham with Miami fits into that plan.

“We’ve got a great guy in David,” the commissioner said. “He’s a very bright guy, very focused, and a great business person. He’s got a great partner in Simon Fuller. If you put that together with a great facility plan and another economic partner, you could have the formula for success.”

He said he is encouraged by what Relevant Sports, which was co-founded by Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and Matt Higgins, “and the Dolphins guys have done with their international friendlies” at Sun Life Stadium, drawing crowds of 69,000 for the match between Real Madrid and Chelsea and 71,000 for Brazil against Honduras. “Frankly, they’ve been wildly successful, proving that this market is changing.” It remains to be seen if Miami’s fans, savvy and crazy about the international game, will transfer some of that passion to the domestic league. Garber believes it’s worth a try.

He refused to put a timetable on the project. He said there is a Board of Governors meeting on Friday, and that Miami expansion will be “a key subject’’, but that Beckham’s group will not be presenting a specific proposal.

“We’re not there yet, but we hope to be able to get there soon.”

Start believing.