HOUSTON -- Houston is the front-runner to land Major League Soccer's San Jose Earthquakes if the franchise's owners decide to move it.
"This is the market they've got their sights set on," commissioner Don Garber said Wednesday before Mexico played a Bulgarian split squad in an exhibition game.
MLS said this week it had granted permission to the Earthquakes' owners _ the Anschutz Entertainment Group _ to relocate the team by next season. Garber said AEG had 30 days to make a decision.
Garber said even if the Earthquakes stay in California, the MLS will find a way to bring a club to Houston.
"We will have a team in Houston in due time," he said. "The question is whether we have one as early as 2006 as part of a move, or as an expansion team. We'll get a team here, there's no doubt in our mind."
San Jose is a charter member of the MLS and won the league's championship in 2001 and 2003. Despite the on-field success, the Earthquakes have been shaken by front-office turmoil and a dwindling attendance. AEG has wanted to sell the franchise, but has struggled to find a buyer.
Garber said the league would prefer to see the Earthquakes stay put. But he also said the league has had "preliminary discussions" with investors in Houston interested in the team. Garber would not identify the investors.
"We've had lots of discussions with people here," he said. "This is a market that we've got investor interest, we've got sponsor interest, we've got media interest. This is a market that's going to be terrific for us."
Garber said the team's owners are interested in using Robertson Stadium at the University of Houston or a high school stadium until a permanent home is built. Garber said the Earthquakes won't relocate to Houston unless the league is assured that plans for a new stadium are in the works.
"We need to get a small, soccer-themed facility here," he said. "It wouldn't make a lot of sense to move here without having that plan in place. But we're pretty confident we can get that done."
Garber said the league is mainly attracted to Houston because of its Hispanic population. Games involving the Mexican national team and other Latin American squads have drawn big crowds in recent years.
"You've got lots of Hispanics in this market. You've got lots of people playing soccer here who are not Hispanic," Garber said. "It's a market that we think has a very, very high potential for soccer in this country. They've had great success here over the years."