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Montreal meetings advance expansion prospects
by Ridge Mahoney, December 10th, 2009 7AM



[MLS] Montreal Impact owner Joey Saputo has jumped the gun several times regarding his team's entry into Major League Soccer, but a visit by MLS executives Wednesday signals the issue is very much alive.

League commissioner Don Garber and president Mark Abbott visited Montreal to meet with Saputo and members of the Quebec government to measure progress toward obtaining public funding to expand the team's current home, Saputo Stadium, which currently holds 13,034.

Saputo is one of the driving forces behind the new North American Soccer League, which has broken away from United Soccer Leagues (USL) and formed a 10-team alternative league that has applied for sanction by U.S. Soccer. The Impact won the 2009 USL title in October but nonetheless opposes the group, NuRock Soccer Holdings, which bought the USL from Nike in August.

Garber, Abbott, and Saputo met Wednesday morning with Quebec Minister of Finance Raymond Bachand and Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay.

"We continued our discussions with the Saputo family about a future MLS expansion team in Montreal and had very productive meetings with Minister Bachand about securing funding for the expansion of Saputo Stadium," Garber said in a league press release following the meetings. "We've stated many times that Montreal would be a great market for MLS and we look forward to continuing our discussions."

There is strong support for a Montreal entry among members of the Board of Governors, who nonetheless want financial assurances and solid governmental backing before approving a stadium renovation plan.

Another snag is a 20th team to accompany Montreal as the 19th. Though several cities continue to interest the league, including St. Louis, Ottawa, and Atlanta, Saputo's latest proclamation that Montreal will play in MLS starting in 2012 may be yet another premature statement. David Beckham's contract includes an option on an MLS team, which he could exercise when his five-year contract expires at the end of the 2011 season.

Almost from the day the stadium opened, in May of last year, Saputo began issuing periodic public declarations that the move to MLS was imminent. Just over a year ago, Montreal - one of seven candidates to obtain two available expansion slots for 2011 -- dropped out of the selection process by which applications from Vancouver and Portland were officially approved by the league's Board of Governors last March.

Garber at first said Montreal had pulled out, Saputo quickly informed the press and public that the Board had done the pulling. The Board had judged Montreal's financial commitment didn't measure up to MLS standards, and the team needed to raise additional capital to pay a US$40 million expansion fee as well as fund expansion of the stadium. Vancouver and Portland eventually agreed to pay a reduced fee of $35 million; despite the setback last year, Montreal is next in line.

"We are very happy with the visit of the MLS executives in Montreal," said Saputo. "The meetings this morning with Minister Bachand and Mayor Tremblay were very positive. It's clear for us, and now more than ever, that the arrival of MLS in Montreal is only a question of time. We are hoping to have news in the first quarter of 2010."

In that same time frame plans must be finalized to start renovations at PG&E Park in Portland to get it ready in time for the 2011 season at a cost of more than $30 million.

During MLS meeting in the days leading up to MLS Cup, Portland made a presentation of its planned expansion of PG&E Park, its business plans, and marketing data. It has yet to come to an agreement with city officials for the renovation and has not found a site for a baseball facility to house the minor-league Beavers, who play at PG&E Park and would be displaced once the conversion to a 20,000-seat soccer stadium is complete.



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