Those who have been trying to follow the up-until-now quiet negotiations to bring an outdoor soccer team back to Philadelphia received at least a bit of encouraging news yesterday.

Speaking before members of the Associated Press Sports Editors in New York, the commissioner of Major League Soccer said he was hopeful an agreement can be completed soon to bring a team to Philadelphia.

"We're bullish about Philly," Don Garber said. "Right now it's just a matter of closing the deal."

Garber, while telling the editors that Philly was at the top of the league's list of potential expansion sites, added that the league might have to look elsewhere if a deal cannot be reached soon.

"We should know in next 4 to 5 months or we will have to reconfigure and start from scratch," he said.

MLS has 13 teams with the recent addition of Toronto and hopes to expand to 16 by 2010. But Garber said there's some flexibility in that timetable. "If we don't get to 16 until 2011 because we think it's better to have a team kick off in a new stadium rather than starting in a temporary facility, then we can wait," he said.

Among the criteria a city needs to meet is a $30 million franchise fee, a market that can support the franchise, a new soccer-specific stadium or the plan for one in place, and an investment group that meets the standards of the other owners. MLS has gone on record as saying it feels that this region's fan base is large enough to back a team.

Two stadiums in the city could house a soccer team temporarily, Franklin Field and Lincoln Financial Field. In the case of the latter, the Eagles have said they couldn't commit the stadium because of their contract with the Temple football team. The MLS season begins in April, with the title game in mid-November.

Seven of the league's teams play in soccer-specific stadiums that range in capacity from 18,000 to 27,000.

Last spring, MLS had agreed to work with Rowan University, in Glassboro, N.J., on plans to build a soccer-specific stadium that would house a team by 2009. Those plans were scuttled because of a funding shortfall. *