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Goin' North
by Ridge Mahoney, May 16th, 2008 4:45PM
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When the USL Montreal Impact opens its new stadium Monday night, MLS Commissioner Don Garber and President Mark Abbott will be in attendance.

Stade Saputo (capacity 13,000) is the centerpiece of the Saputo Soccer Complex in the city's Olympic Park, not far from the Olympic Stadium that proved to be a financial sinkhole since it was built for the 1976 Olympic Games. Cost overruns, a malfunctioning retractable roof and the departure of the baseball Expos after the 2004 season redefined the term "white elephant."

The city's new soccer stadium, though, gleams among the fields and trees that surround it. It features a natural grass playing surface and according to team president Tony Saputo can easily be expanded to a capacity of about 20,000, just in case Saputo and his partners land an MLS expansion franchise.

Leaping to the conclusion that this might indicate Montreal has lapped its rivals in the MLS expansion race would be logical, since after all, Abbott is the league point man on expansion, and Garber is, well, Garber. The Impact's opponent, Vancouver, has fallen back in the expansion race because of political impasse regarding its own stadium project and none of the other expansion rivals - Atlanta, St. Louis, Miami, Portland - have a stadium ready to go, more or less.

Not coincidentally, Vancouver has announced a move into B.C. Place, which will be renovated prior to the 2010 Winter Olympics and domed following the Games. Garber has praised the move and the stadium, a hint as to which Canadian city he might prefer.

The presence of Garber and Abbott in Montreal Monday won't be nearly as significant as a sighting, or lack thereof, of someone else.

Saputo has stated he and Montreal Canadiens mogul George Gillett could join forces to buy into MLS, though the figures he cited in late March are already dated. He said he and Gillett could split the $30 million expansion fee as well as the estimated cost ($12 million) of increasing Stade Saputo capacity.

Last week, MLS stipulated the price for an expansion franchise in the next phase - following Seattle (2009) and Philadelphia (2010) - is $40 million. By the terms of its entry into the league, Toronto FC holds rights of exclusivity to MLS teams in Canada, though those rights could be waived or sold in case a Montreal bid came up for league approval. Those rights also expire after the 2009 season, and despite Saputo's brazen claim the Impact and Stade Saputo could be ready by in time for next season there's no way that's going to happen. MLS execs are understandably wary of such proclamations.

Yet at this point, the key figure in any Montreal bid is Gillett, and little has been resolved in the acrimonious dispute between Gillett and his partner in the ownership of Liverpool, Tom Hicks. The pair have been partners in past acquisitions as well as rivals in the National Hockey League (Hicks owns the Dallas Stars). Ironically, Hicks came into the Liverpool picture at the behest of Gillett.

In March, Hicks blocked Gillett's proposed sale of a 49 percent interest to Dubai International Group (DIC) for a reported $342 million and has rebuffed DIC's attempts to buy the club outright. According to Gillett, the pair's business relationship has been "unworkable" for some time. Hicks and Gillett bought Liverpool for 218.9 million pounds (then $431 million) in March, 2007, and also pledged roughly double that sum to design and build a stadium to replace Anfield.

Of joining forces with the Saputo Group, Gillett has said only there is "a mutual interest." MLS has already forged a wildly successful NHL partnership with Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment with Toronto FC. Yet the Toronto and Montreal markets are vastly different, and assuming the latter can be identical to the former is naive. In Toronto, Garber admits the league encountered a "perfect storm" in which financial, political, logistical and governmental elements came together.

In Toronto, three possible sites/projects were discarded before local and national agencies and MLS&E agreed on a downtown location and everything else necessary for a stadium to host the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup as well as TFC.

The robust welcome in Philadelphia, for example, doesn't make Cleveland or St. Louis or Detroit a slam-dunk; if anything, it sets the bar higher when league officials evaluate political acceptance, resources of potential ownership groups, stadium proposals and the depth of local fanaticism (in the good sense).

In Philly, already, nearly two years before a team takes the field, more than 4,000 deposits for season tickets have been taken. The wealth and access to same of operator-investor Jay Sugarman and his partners runs well into 10 figures. City and county politicians and agencies are on board for the Chester stadium project. Any questions?

So MLS officials will watch closely attendance figures and media coverage for USL matches, the June 20 World Cup qualifier between Canada and St. Vincent & The Grenadines, and also the CONCACAF club games against Toronto and Vancouver that will determine which Canadian entry advances to group play in the Champions' League.

In an e-mail, MLS director of communications Dan Courtemanche said of Garber and Abbott heading north, "It's a friendly trip to say hello to Mr. Saputo and also see the new stadium."

If a Mr. Gillett stops by to say 'Hi', well, that may change everything. Right now, though, Montreal is just one team in the mix.

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