Impact could move up to MLS - The Gazette

But other teams are in the running, too

PAT HICKEY
The Gazette

Don Garber, the commissioner of Major League Soccer, was on hand for the inaugural game at Saputo Stadium yesterday and had some good news - and not-so-good news - for fans who would like to see the Impact playing in MLS in the near future.

"Absolutely," Garber said when asked whether Montreal has what it takes to play in North America's premier professional soccer league. "It has ownership, they've got a nice stadium here and it's a good soccer market."

That's the good news. The not-so-good news is that Montreal isn't the only city seeking an expansion franchise and there are some obstacles Montreal must overcome. Garber noted that MLS is on track to field 18 teams by 2012 but "our sense is that we could have quite a few more than that and Montreal could be one of those teams."

MLS currently has 14 teams. Seattle joins the fold next year and Philadelphia is scheduled to begin play in 2010. Garber said that at least six cities could be in the running for the next two expansion franchises and the field includes Montreal and Vancouver. While Garber said no city is considered a favourite, St. Louis is regarded as the top candidate while Atlanta, Portland, San Diego, Detroit and Miami have also been mentioned as possible sites.

The success of Toronto FC should be a factor in the Canadian bids. The team had the worst record in MLS last season but led in attendance. It sold out every game and averaged 20,130 fans a game, more than 2,300 over the league average.

"We have to determine what the Canadian market can be in totality," said Garber. "Toronto FC is arguably one of the most successful team, if not the most successful team, in MLS. We're not just intrigued by what's going on up here, we're impressed by it."

Garber said MLS has been at the forefront in the development of soccer-specific facilities and he came to Montreal to savour the ambience at the new stadium. He was impressed with what he saw despite the fact that a torrential rain kept thousands of fans from attending what was a sold-out game.

But Garber also noted that the 13,000-seat stadium would have to be upgraded if Montreal was awarded an MSL franchise. Last week, team president Joey Saputo said there was a blueprint for increasing the capacity to 20,000.

There are other stumbling blocks but Garber said he was not concerned about an agreement which gives Toronto-based Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment exclusive rights to Canada through the 2010 season.

"(MLSE) is actively engaged with us on assuring that we get Canada right,' said Garber. "They're working closely with us, with the Saputos, the Canadiens as well as the Whitecaps. They're part of the process."

The other concern will be money. When Toronto was awarded a franchise in 2006, the price was $10 million. Seattle and Philadelphia are paying $30 million each and Garber said the next two teams will be paying $40 million.

The Impact is currently a non-profit operation supported by Saputo, Hydro-Québec and the provincial government. Canadiens owner George Gillett is expected to join Saputo on any MLS bid.

© The Gazette (Montreal) 2008