The Myth of Montreal

There are a great many of you who will stop reading at the above title and skip right to the comments section which Huss thoughtfully provides in order for all and sundry to heap abuse on poor ink-stained wretches like Dan and I.

Fair enough. We can take it. (Just lay off of 10Shirt. He's a sensitive, New Age guy.)

So in the spirit of goodwill, mutual respect and bonhomie for which I am justifiably famous, herewith some "Inconvenient Truths" regarding Montreal fielding a team in MLS.

First off, let's look at Montreal's geographical dilemma, because lost somewhere in the discussion about whether Montreal is leaving USL1 is the fact that USL1 seems to be leaving Montreal.

This concept is illustrated perfectly by the history of the "Can-Am Cup" competition, which was a competition between Montreal, Toronto, Rochester and Syracuse. A nice little regional tournament which added a little drama to the season by highlighting natural rivalries.

Except that Syracuse folded in 2004, Toronto left the league in 2007 and there's a good chance Rochester will cease to exist in 2008. So much for natural rivalries.

In fact, USL1 used to have quite a few teams within a quick plane flight, and all of them - save the teetering Rochester Rhinos - are now just memories: Long Island collapsed in 2002. Pittsburgh and Indiana in 2003. Syracuse was gone in 2004. Virginia Beach in 2006. Toronto skipped to MLS in 2007.

And what new cities have taken their place? Well, there was Portland Oregon in 2001, followed by Puerto Rico in 2003 and Miami in 2005.

In other words, if Rochester really does go the way of all things, the shortest road trip and closest "regional rival" will be the Carolina Railhawks, in Cary, NC, a mere 871 miles away. If home and home grudge matches between those two don't light you up, your next choices would be Charleston, SC (1134 miles) St Paul (1240 miles) and their friendly neighbor Vancouver, which is a staggering 3000 miles from the stinky cheese of home.

And the league is welcoming a new member this year: Austin Texas (the obnoxiously named "Aztex"). Apparently the Dark Side of the Moon still has some stadium issues to sort out, but look for them in 2009.

In short, if you're a travel agent, the Impact is the Mother lode, Holy Grail, put-down-a-deposit-on-oceanfront-property of clients. By the end of 2008 they'll have racked up more frequent flier miles than Barack Obama.

Compare this planeride/hotel existence competing against a bunch of far distant cities the average Quebecois couldn't care less about with membership in Major League Soccer East:

Toronto anybody? How about New York? New England? DC? Possibly Philadelphia? Think maybe you could gin up a little fan interest in any of those games?

Talk about a no-brainer: step up to a Division 1 league offering readymade rivalries with major North American cities and have your travel expenses go down? Where do I sign? Get Garber on the horn!

Plus, as everyone knows, because it gets repeated on BigSoccer 50 times a day, Montreal is a) moving into a gleaming new Soccer Specific Stadium this April, b) Draws 12,000 fans a game in a minor league and c) is owned by a scion of the deep-pockets Saputo family, worldwide cheese purveyors.

What else could you possibly want? What kind of idiot is Don Garber, wasting time playing footsie with Philly and St Looey while this golden opportunity is just a quick hop across the border?

Well, to paraphrase Havey Keitel (Mr Wolf) in Pulp Fiction, let's not start "congratulating ourselves" quite yet, gentlemen. There are a couple of issues getting lost in the confetti here, to wit:

First of all, the Impact is not owned by team President Joey Saputo. After the team went bankrupt in 2002 (something nobody ever seems to mention) the team was resurrected as a non-profit organization owned by Saputo, the Quebec Government and Hydro-Quebec. It's charter is to serve as a representative for Montreal tourism and as an incubator for Quebec-born soccer talent.

So leaving aside the question of just how Phil Anschutz might feel about being partnered with a bunch of French-speaking politicians, and just how this ownership structure translates to MLS (and, honestly, it doesn't) there's the fact that a good deal of the Impact's success at the box office is due to the fact that they field as many Quebed-born players as they can find, another thing which won't likely translate well into MLS unless their goal is to lose all the time.

Furthermore, Saputo, who would have to be the one to take over ownership and become and MLS partner, has been bad mouthing MLS for the better part of a decade, very publicly disparaging the caliber of play and scoffing at any hint that he might be interested in joining up.

Back when MLS was desperate for someone - anyone - to step up and buy a team, Saputo ridiculed the idea that it was worth the $10 million asking price. A year or two later, when he could have bought in for $15 million, he announced that it just wasn't worth the money.

But maybe, as the USL has migrated away from Montreal, and after seeing Toronto's success last season, maybe he's changed his mind and, being the gracious, good-hearted, forgiving types that we are, why wouldn't we simply forgive and forget and - assuming he's changed his mind, a proposition for which there is but scant evidence - roll out the red carpet and welcome him with roses and champagne?

Short answer: his stadium.

Now, on any day of the week you can read dozens of BigSoccer expansion experts raving about the wonderful new stadium in Montreal. They'll tell you how, although it only seats 13,000, it is "expandable" to 18,000 (officially it was 17,000 but 18 sounds better, apparently) and if that's still a little small, well, why let that get in the way of a good story?

I would suggest to those of you who are dying to put MLS in that building to look at a couple facts. Starting with the cost of construction:

Among recent stadium projects, Red Bull Park will come in somewhere between $180-200 million. If memory serves, Bridgeview was built for around $100 million. Sandy Stadium is projected to wind up at roughly $115 million. Chester (Philadelphia) and the proposal in Miami both call for $100 million buildings.

Saputo Stadium (Stade Saputo for you Francophones) will be completed this April at a total cost of $15 million. Canadian.

By comparison, Columbus Crew stadium, which a lot of MLS fans denigrate as being a cheaply built galvanized erector set high school stadium cost Lamar Hunt over $28 million. Ten year ago.

So let's have a look at the gleaming soccer palace which so many of you insist ought to become an MLS venue immediately if not sooner, shall we?

The small cement block building in the corner is the combination restroom and concession stand. Just like your local high school only smaller.

The expansion to 17,000? They'll put another set of bleachers in the open end, where the consruction trailers are. It'll make all the difference, I'm sure.

Now this is a very nice little stadium for USL1. Works very well.

But for MLS? Seriously?

I mean, the place makes Crew Stadium look like Anfield.

Sorry, Montreal. It's just not going to happen.