By RANDY PHILLIPS
It's not exactly what the Impact hoped for - after threatening to help form a rival league - but the creation of a second-tier professional soccer league by the United States Soccer Federation is being hailed as a significant compromise.
The Impact will be part of a 12-team Division 2, which will combine teams from the United Soccer Leagues and the newly formed North American Soccer League to play under the USSF banner this year.
The announcement comes after last week's decision by the USSF not to sanction the new NASL, of which the Impact was a founding partner. At the time, the USL and NASL were mandated to reach a solution with the federation's help.
In addition to the Impact - reigning USL Division 1 champion - the breakaway group included two other USL power franchises, the Vancouver Whitecaps and Rochester Rhinos, which had a longstanding dispute with the league over control of their teams.
"I think it's a good compromise," Impact president Joey Saputo said after USSF president Sunil Gulati met with USL and NASL officials in Chicago.
"It was important for the USSF to step in to kind of guide us," Saputo added. "Sometimes when you're in the forest, you don't necessarily see the trees, and the USSF brought some leadership to the table."
The USSF Division 2 - one level below Major League Soccer - will consist of two six-team conferences. The Impact will be in the NASL Conference along with Vancouver, Carolina, Miami, Baltimore and St. Louis. The USL Conference will be composed of Austin (Tex.), Rochester (N.Y.), Minnesota, Portland (Ore.), Puerto Rico and Tampa.
Teams will play a 28- to 34-game regular season - beginning in late March or early April - that will feature inter-conference play.
Gulati called 2010 "an extraordinary year for soccer" because of the World Cup in South Africa and bids by the U.S. for the 2018 and '22 World Cups.
"I'm excited we were able to get this done," Gulati said.
"Our goal is stability for professional soccer in the U.S. MLS has accomplished steady growth, and we'd like that with all our pro leagues. This is a short-term solution in search of long-term stability."
Saputo called the agreement a "a great compromise," as it guarantees competitive soccer in Montreal this season.
"We have some great teams. Some great rivalries with Vancouver, Rochester, Portland and Puerto Rico, and the opportunity to create new rivalries with some of the teams coming in. And I think it's great for the fans," he said.
Saputo also vowed to continue to work for "total independence" with the franchise ultimately controlling its destiny.
"We're going to continue to push that," he said. "But this gives us time to put our ducks in order. Time to build. Time for the new teams to build a good reputation to do what they want to do.
"Whether (this) is short-term or long-term, Montreal's short-team goal is to be in MLS by 2012, if not sooner. If this allows us to continue to build the club until we're in MLS, for us it's a step in the right direction."