By Bill Beacon
It appears the Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps will go down to the wire in deciding whether to stay in the United Soccer Leagues first division or form their own breakaway league.
The dispute between the eight member clubs of the Team Owners Association, including Montreal and Vancouver, and the new owners of the league, NuRock Soccer Holdings, will likely come to a head at league meetings next week.
Impact president Joey Saputo has yet to confirm that he will attend the meetings, while Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi said this week that the teams are preparing for both scenarios - staying in the USL or forming a new league.
The debate heated up on Wednesday when the league's CEO Alec Papadakis told a Montreal radio station that talks with the TOA were over, and seemed to kiss the Impact and Whitecaps goodbye by thanking them for their contributions to the league "for the past few years."
The league hastily amended Papadakis' comments in a statement.
"While the statements made in an earlier interview are accurate in that we have ceased negotiations with the Team Owners Association as a group, we remain in dialogue with certain individual TOA teams about their possible participation in USL-1 for 2010," it said.
"We are open to the return of the Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps to USL-1 for 2010; however, we continue to move forward with our preparations for next season, which includes a meeting of team owners and league officials next week in Beaverton, Oregon."
Saputo, an outspoken critic of the league, has remained relatively quiet on the dispute of late, although he issued his own statement Wednesday confirming that talks were still in progress with the league.
"The negotiations are not over," it said. "We continue to work on various options, including the possibility of seeing the Impact in the USL-1 in 2010."
Lenarduzzi said this week his club is also still talking to the league, but is also preparing to help start a new league if the talks fail. He told Montreal's La Presse that the TOA will ask the United States Soccer Federation in the coming days to sanction a new league.
The Impact defeated Vancouver for its third USL-1 title on Oct. 17, while the Whitecaps won in 2006 and 2008. Together, they are two of the strongest and best-supported teams in the 11-team league.
But both may not be in USL-1 long anyway. Vancouver is slated to join Major League Soccer in 2011, while the Impact hope to get in that year or in 2012. Still, the Whitecaps hope to maintain a development team in the USL based somewhere in British Columbia.
They and other TOA members from Carolina, Atlanta, Miami, Minnesota, St. Louis and Tampa have been at odds with the league's ownership for years. Last year it took until mid-November to confirm their participation for the 2009 season.
The USL has a unique model in that it is owned by a private company rather than by the teams. Club owners were upset that the previous owners Nike/Umbro spurned their bid to buy the league and sold to NuRock on Aug. 27.
After the sale, Saputo and other owners said they would consider "other options," including a breakaway league, if NuRock did not grant them greater say in how the league is run.
The league has used pressure tactics of its own, including sending letters to players from Minnesota, Miami FC and Carolina telling them they were released from their contracts once their teams were eliminated from the playoffs. The teams said the letters were not valid and the player contracts were good.
The Papadakis comments this week turned the heat up a little more, although Saputo said during the USL-1 final he was confident an agreement would be reached to stay in the league next season.
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