THE CANADIAN PRESS
MONTREAL — The Montreal Impact don’t see themselves as just another new team joining Major League Soccer.
The 2009 United Soccer Leagues champions figure they can call on their 17-year history and their record of success, both on the field and in filling stadium seats, to make an impact right way when they begin play in MLS in 2012.
The long-expected announcement was made Friday by commissioner Don Garber and club president Joey Saputo with a splashy presentation at the eXcentris film and visual arts centre.
"We don’t look at ourselves as an expansion franchise," said Saputo. "We look at ourselves as a team that’s going from where we are to the next level.
"We have an advantage over a Toronto or a Philadelphia, when they started, because we have a base already and we’ll be able to work from that base."
Montreal will become the league’s 19th club and the third based in Canada after Toronto FC, which joined in 2007, and the Vancouver Whitecaps, who are to enter in 2011 along with Portland. The prospect of a Montreal-Toronto rivalry looms.
An owners revolt against the USL last year led to the creation of the U.S. Soccer Federation Division 2, where the Impact and Whitecaps now play while awaiting entry into MLS.
Saputo first entered talks on joining MLS in 2008, but an initial bid to start in 2011 was turned down when he balked at the US$40 million expansion fee, proposing instead a package of about $43 million that included a fee and the cost of expanding their stadium.
The team turned to the Quebec government, and on Friday, provincial finance minister Raymond Bachand was on hand to announce funding of $23 million to expand Saputo Stadium from 13,034 seats to more than 20,000, and to build a training field with a synthetic surface next door. The stadium with a natural grass pitch opened in 2008.
"You need to take advantage of these opportunities when they arise and that’s what we’ve done," said Bachand.
The team is currently a non-profit society, but in MLS will be wholly owned by the Saputo cheese-making family.
They will pay a $40 million entry fee, but Saputo expects to make some of it back through further league expansion.
The Impact was founded in 1993 from the ashes of the former Montreal Supra of the defunct Canadian Soccer League. The team won championships in 1994, 2004 and last season.
As well, the Impact won the inaugural Nutrilite Canadian Championship, a three-team competition between Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, which earned them entry into the first CONCACAF Champions League. The club made a surprise run to the quarter-finals, where they drew 55,571 for a game held indoors at Olympic Stadium in winter against Santos Laguna of Mexico.
The Impact annually led the USL in attendance, drawing more than 11,000 per game, which impressed Garber. Toronto regularly sells out 20,000-seat BMO Field and the Whitecaps are expected to be a big draw in Vancouver.
When MLS began play in 1996, it didn’t want Canadian teams, but times have changed.
"There’s something special happening with the sport here, akin perhaps to what hockey means in this country," said Garber. "I think it’s disproportionate to the interest in a lot of the United States.
"A lot of it has to do with the population here — it’s connection to soccer countries, all the diversity and the international folks who live here. That’s a positive thing for us. Toronto is one of the most successful teams in any sport, let alone a little soccer league, so I think it bodes well for the future."
He said Montreal will have the advantage of being the only team joining in its year, so it will not have to compete with another club for players. The league hopes to expand further, including a second club in New York, but it won’t come until after 2012.
"There are a lot of cities in the United States now that we have seen what’s gone on in Seattle and Los Angeles, the new stadium in New York, and there’s a lot more interest," he said. "I don’t know where it ends up. Twenty teams is on our short-term radar."
The Impact will need to sign a handful of more skilled players to make the jump to MLS, which is at a somewhat higher level than they are now. Saputo said that process should start next season so they will be ready by 2012.
For now, the players will go on competing in USSF-2 not knowing if they will make the move to MLS with the team.
"It’s extremely positive for everyone," said team captain Nevio Pizzolitto. "It keeps the players motivated.
"But we’ve got to keep winning games for the city. We can’t forget where we are and what brought us here, so we have to keep doing what we’ve been doing."
Saputo said the team will only sign an expensive international star if the right one comes along at the right price, and he hopes to keep a core of locally developed players.
There was some talk of changing the team’s name. They were called Montreal’s MLS team and not the Impact in the league’s news release.
But Saputo said he insisted on three things in negotiations — to keep the club’s blue and white colours, the Quebec fleur-de-lys on its shirts and the Impact name.
THE CANADIAN PRESS