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Jun 25, 2009

Montreal bids for a 2011 MLS expansion spot

Montreal Impact owner Joey Saputo is determined to get his club into Major League Soccer by 2011, and there are signs that MLS might be willing to accommodate his request, ESPNsoccernet has learned.

"I'm trying to push for 2011," Saputo said. "I feel very, very comfortable that we'll be ready. We've spoken about that with the [MLS] commissioner [Don Garber], and he understands that."

Garber and MLS president Mark Abbott were not immediately available for comment, but as league spokesman Dan Courtemanche said, "Joey's been at our offices in the last couple months and sat down with commissioner Garber and Mark and had very positive discussions about a future MLS team in Montreal.

"Those discussions are still ongoing, but it's premature to talk about the timing of MLS expansion because we don't have a formal timeline for teams 19, 20 and beyond."

But Courtemanche didn't rule out the possibility that Montreal could join the league, along with Vancouver and Portland, which will become the 17th and 18th MLS clubs, for the start of the 2011 season. That is an apparent about-face from comments Garber made in March saying that MLS would not expand again until 2012 at the earliest. The league's 16th team, the Philadelphia Union, will debut in the spring of 2010.

Saputo is in the process of securing $25 million in funding from the government of Quebec that would be used to expand Saputo Stadium, which was privately funded and opened last year, from 13,000 to 21,000 seats. He expects to have an answer within the next few weeks.

"There is some concern from the MLS that too much expansion too quickly might hurt the product," Saputo said. "But I try to prove the point to commissioner Garber that I wouldn't look at Montreal as an expansion franchise. I don't think that we're going to have to pick up 22 new players."

The Impact won the Canadian championship last season, beating out Toronto FC of MLS and fellow USL-1 outfit Vancouver, and advanced all the way to the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League before narrowly falling to Mexican club Santos Laguna. The home leg of that series was played at Montreal's Olympic Stadium in front of more than 55,000 fans, most of them clad in the home team's blue and white.

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"With the core we have, we could add four or five key players that could really make a difference and be competitive in MLS right away," Saputo said.

This past summer, Montreal was a front-runner for one of the two expansion spots MLS awarded at the beginning of the 2009 season. But discussions broke down in November when Saputo wanted to use a portion of the $40 million expansion fee to increase the capacity of the stadium. MLS balked and eventually welcomed Vancouver and Portland instead for $35 million apiece.

There are some key differences between Saputo's failed bid and his latest one. First, MLS would allow the expansion fee to be paid over a five-year period, Saputo said, rather than as a lump sum. Second, the original bid did not ask for government money to expand the stadium.

"Now, the government has approached us and said, 'We want Montreal in MLS,'" Saputo said. "They know the league has certain requirements as far as stadium size is concerned, and they are ready to invest in infrastructure to bring ours up to MLS standards."

Another difference is that George Gillett, the former Montreal Canadiens owner (and current Liverpool co-owner), isn't involved as an investor -- at least not yet.

"If I don't have a partner, no problem," Saputo said. "But once I do have the franchise, if Mr. Gillett, or someone else, wants to get involved, great."

But why the rush to join the party?

"We'd lose two good franchises in our [USL] league to MLS in 2011 in Portland and Vancouver, and if it's just a matter of time, why wait until 2012? We're ready. Our stadium will be ready. So I just think it makes more sense to do it sooner rather than later. The momentum is there."

Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.

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