Greg Cote

With latest delay, David Beckham faces biggest fight yet to bring MLS soccer to Miami

MasTec executive Jorge Mas listens as his franchise partner David Beckham speaks at a public hearing at Miami City Hall on July 12, 2018, on the soccer stadium proposal for Melreese Country Club.
MasTec executive Jorge Mas listens as his franchise partner David Beckham speaks at a public hearing at Miami City Hall on July 12, 2018, on the soccer stadium proposal for Melreese Country Club. pportal@miamiherald.com

David Beckham entered the room not to outright booing Thursday evening, as some had predicted, but to a sort of collective grunting murmur and frowns. This is not what you expect when you are a global soccer icon and international heartthrob. Swooning might be closer to the standard reaction.

“This is one of the few times I’ve walked into a room and people have not smiled at me,” he admitted to those gathered, in an attempt to melt the frost. “It’s not a nice feeling. We’re good people. We’re trying to do the right thing...”

What a spectacle Beckham and his fellow Major League Soccer ownership group stepped into in a Miami City Commission meeting quite unlike any other.

This chamber rarely sees excitement or intrigue beyond the arcane minutia of local politics. Should the city regulate scooters? Should a zoning waiver be granted so Building A can add a story? The room is rarely filled with people, and more rarely still with passion and rancor.

Not Thursday.

This day began just after 5 a.m.,. when the gladiators aiming to dethrone Beckham began arriving by bus at city hall, outfitted in the matching orange shirts of the Melreese Country Club’s massively successful First Tee youth golf program. It finally ended -- or, rarther, was postponed -- well into the night as the five-person commission debated whether Beckham’s Miami MLS expansion team would be allowed to build its proposed, near-$1 billion Miami Freedom Park and Soccer Village, including a 25,000-seat stadium for the new team, where a venerable asnd much loved golf course now sits some 5 1/2 miles west of downtown Miami, near the airport.

The debate in play: To determine whether green-lighting the soccer project would get onto the November ballot as a referendum. In other words, whether five commissioners would allow the voters of Miami to decide.

The verdict, finally: Reconvene a special meeting this Wednesday and do the whole thing again.

Folks who want Melreese left alone are afraid they know they’d lose in November. As one mom in an orange shirt admitted into the mic, of the soccer village project: “It is sexy. Just like Beckham is sexy.:”

Countering the defenders of the First Tee were a like number of soccer fans in Miami MLS T-shirts, trying to figure out a way into the commission chamber when well-organized and early-arriving First Tee’ers had glommed almost all of the 150 seats.

A local soccer fan group called Southern Legion plotted to storm the place (sort of) before the 2 p.m. meeting began. From a park near city hall, the group’s Max Ramos declared., “We’re going to make them understand what Miami really wants!”

Blessedly there were no fisticuffs, just 3 1/2 hours of alternating pro-soccer and pro-golf speakers taking the open mic -- democracy in action! Quick aside: Hearing a parade of more than 100 soccer aficionados, golf moms and lawyers enchanted by the sound of their own voice repeating themselves and ignoring their 2-minute time limits -- this was never, ever on my career bucket list.

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Hundred of MLS supporters are turned down at the City of Miami due to an overcrowded City Hall where a vote will take place to consider the stadium issue on Thursday, July 12, 2018 C.M. GUERRERO cmguerrero@miamiherald.com`

Beckham’s business partner, deep-pocketed Jorge Mas of Miami’s giant MasTec developers, should have won over a few First Tee skeptics when he stated, “We want you to have a place at Miami Freedom Park. To accommodate and to expand.”

But he didn’t win over enough commissioners.

The problem for Team Beckham has been the inherited baggage of Jeffrey Loria and the Marlins Park deal that proved so awful for the city, as Mas readily admits. Loria was not trustworthy and city and county officials at the time failed at their due diligence to assure that they, as elected representatives, capably represented the public’s best interest in the deal.

This is different.

The Mas family has earned the trust of South Florida. Jorge’s voice broke near tears Thursday night when he described driving past Miami’s dilapidated Freedom Tower in 1997 with his father, who was ailing. The Tower meant so much to Cuban Miami. The son promised that day to restore it. He spent $30 million of his own money to do it.

When the heir of Jorge Mas Canosa, a Miami hero, assures he will build Miami Freedom Park with zero taxpayer dollars, and cannot repeat that enough, I believe him.

That does not mean the Miami City Commission’s due diligence on the deal should be lacking. There are a ton of questions about a massive project largely unknown until the Beckham group finally released an artist’s rendering over the weekend. More details emerged Thursday night. Still not enough.

By my view, the city has ample time to satisfy itself on the Beckham/Mas group’s pledges in time for Miamians to make an informed vote in November. Getting it right is paramount, but time is a factor, too. The team is to debut in 2020. Greern-lighted now, the stadium project would be ready by 2021 after one season playing all over.

Much delay, though, and Miami risks losing its newborn MLS team to Doral, or completely.

It has been an arduous process. It was 4 1/2 years ago when Beckham was introduced as frontman of the Miami MLS effort. The desired waterfront stadium didn’t happen. The site in Overtown was always a fallback. Let’s not let the Melreese site slide, too.

It’s funny. I re-read the column I wrote 4 1/2 years ago introducing Beckham here. The headline read, ‘David Beckham is taking talents to South Beach, and taking on Miami politics..’

He was still doing that Thursday. And now into next week. May his eventual Miami team have as much tenacity.

The Beckham group doesn’t seem to be giving up on big-time pro soccer in Miami.

Let’s see if we can say the same about the Miami City Commission.

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