The 55,571 in attendance at Olympic Stadium for the first leg of the CONCACAF quarterfinal tie between Montréal Impact and Santos Laguna told the MLS bigwigs what they already should have known.
Montréal has a MLS-caliber franchise in a MLS-caliber city.
A one-off event (especially a game with high stakes in a unique venue) doesn't prove the strength of a franchise or its viability over the long term, but it did serve as a reminder that the Impact has the tools already in place to succeed at the MLS level.
When the expansion bids were unveiled last October, Montréal stood out as the clear top choice. I wrote the following about the Impact when I placed them at the top of the heap:
Expandable stadium in place? Check. Stadium located within city limits? Check. Stadium on public transportation? Check. Well-funded owners with soccer experience? Check. Largest city on the list? Check. Largest Canadian city on the list? Check. Multicultural fanbase? Check. Successful USL franchise? Check. Fierce rivalry with league's most supported team? Check. Said rivalry within a six hour drive? Check.
Dock them for giving away tickets to USL games and having a rather spartan facility if you want. Even with that, Montreal is by far and away the leader in the clubhouse.
The Friday Five explains why MLS should find a way to reconcile with the Impact and clear Montréal's path into the league.
1. Strong Leadership
Impact owner Joey Saputo must get under the skin of MLS headquarters every time he speaks. The see-saw between MLS interest and MLS indifference may be a ploy to obtain expansion under favorable terms or may just reflect a true indifference about taking a risk when Saputo almost certainly makes money with far more oversight in USL1. What isn't in question is Saputo's willingness to fund his team at the USL1 level and his fierce desire to ensure the financial future of the franchise at any cost. Saputo's bankroll is thinner than other potential investors (although revisiting a proposed partnership with George Gillett would certainly help), but his willingness to stand up for his franchise would make him a nice fit in the MLS ownership circles.
2. The Expansion Fee Quandary
Major League Soccer wants $40 million for the next round of expansion and Saputo has balked at the price. Even with franchise values expected to rise over the next few years, that number is a tough sell given the going rate. Only three franchises are currently worth $40 million (Los Angeles, Chicago and Toronto) and five are worth $30 million or less, according to a Forbes study. The proposed figure doesn't even consider the Canadian exchange rate and the cost of stadium improvements MLS would require in order to join the top flight. Dropping the rate closer to $30 million up front – with the requisite stadium upgrades mandated immediately and other financial concessions made in the future, if MLS so desires – would make sense for all parties involved if it gets the Montreal market into the league with a suitable venue. Even if it means Portland, Vancouver or Miami gains entrance at the lower rate.
3. Stadium in Place
In its current configuration, Stade Saputo seats 13,034. That isn't enough for a long-term MLS solution, but plans are in place to expand to 20,000 seats. Stade Saputo isn't a deluxe venue, but Saputo controls the stadium and public transportation drops patrons off at a station less than five minutes away. Those who question the stadium for its no-frills approach should forget about the trappings and focus on the fact that an upgradeable soccer-specific venue is already in place in an enticing market.
4. Strong Attendance
In Stade Saputo's inaugural season in 2008, the Impact drew 12,696. Throw out Kansas City, which plays at a 10,385 seat venue, and that number doesn't beat any existing MLS club in 2008. Then again, the average – compared with the venue capacity – certainly fares competitively with Colorado (13,659) and Dallas (13,024), two teams with substantially larger venues. Add in a few extra seats, a few prominent players and a raucous rivalry with Toronto and there isn't an attendance worry in sight. Not many MLS teams can say that heading into 2009.
5. Large Market
In an ideal world, MLS should try to expand large American markets to improve the television situation in the United States. But ignoring Montréal, a city of 1,620,693 in the city proper according to the 2006 Canadian census, makes little sense considering the market is far larger than any of others in play. While Montréal might not help the league's footprint in America, it may help the bottom line by expanding the Canadian market.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSnet.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.