Saputo said Impact had solid bid, but won't pay US$40 million for expansion - The Canadian Press

MONTREAL — The Montreal Impact are still interested in joining Major League Soccer, but "not at any price," team president Joey Saputo said Monday. The United Soccer Leagues club had its bid for a 2011 expansion franchise in MLS rejected last week for reasons still unclear to Saputo. It especially irked the Impact that MLS commissioner Don Garber announced on Friday that Montreal had withdrawn its bid because it was having trouble raising the money, although Saputo said he later revised that statement to say the bid had not been retained by the league. "I'm disappointed - the bid was taken out without explanation," said Saputo. "Does MLS really want Montreal? I don't know." MLS was demanding a US$40 million expansion fee, a fourfold increase from what Toronto FC paid to get in three years ago, plus an expansion of Saputo Stadium, which currently seats about 13,000. Seattle is to join MLS in 2009 and Philadelphia in 2010, followed by two more teams in 2011. Saputo said the Impact's bid was C$45 million for the expansion fee plus the cost of adding a new grandstand. He said the club's proven record of drawing fans and putting a strong team on the field should have made the bid acceptable. "We were OK with that (amount), without hurting where we are today and without hurting our plans for the future," said Saputo, whose team has been an attendance leader in the USL and its predecessor, the A-League, for 15 years. "We thought we had a sound bid." He said paying the fee MLS demanded and enlarging the stadium would drive ticket prices past the point of being affordable for families. And he questioned whether the six other cities still in the bidding for 2011 - Ottawa, Vancouver, St. Louis, Miami, Atlanta and Portland, Ore. - are really ready to pay US$40 million. He said some did not include a fee in their bids. "Maybe the mistake I made was to put in a price," he added. There is also the question of whether MLS wants a second Canadian-based team. Garber said on Friday that adding more Canadian franchises would "take away from growing our footprint and our television ratings in the United States." Saputo is a partner in the MLS project of Montreal Canadiens owner George Gillett, who co-owns Liverpool FC with Tom Hicks. To join MLS, the Impact was ready to shed its current status as a non-profit company. He said the team will get on fine without MLS, as it did this season. The Impact beat out Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps to become the Canadian representative in the first CONCACAF Champions League, then surprised many by reaching the quarter-finals, which will be played in February. MLS, which is considered a stronger league even though the difference in the level of play is slight, saw all its clubs knocked out in the group stage. "But from the level of public perception and television, we have a big gap we need to fill," Saputo said of the two leagues. He expects to be able to keep all or most of his players because the Impact pays comparable salaries to MLS and offers the chance to play international matches. "Players will come to Montreal," he said. Saputo is also confident his club will be able to play its CONCACAF quarter-final indoors at 55,000-seat Olympic Stadium, even though the troubled facility has been closed from Dec. 1 to March 31 for the past nine years due to concerns over the stability of its roof. Approvals from three public bodies will be needed to play there. "All the forces at hand want it to happen," he said. "I think it will come to fruition."

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