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Philadelphia is set to become 16th franchise this week, begin play in 2010.

Philadelphia, St. Louis loom as favorites as league nears adding 16th franchise.

Major League Soccer

Montreal improves its chances of getting expansion franchise.

By Robert Wagman

(Thursday, March 27, 2008) -- Montreal has likely jumped much higher on the list of possible Major League Soccer expansion teams with George Gillett, owner of the National Hockey League's Montreal Canadiens, and his Gillett Entertainment Group expressing interest in becoming part of a Montreal MLS ownership group.

Montreal has been listed by MLS as a possible expansion city, but it was thought to trail St. Louis, Miami, Fla., and Atlanta in the league's view. That, however, was when the Montreal banner was being carried alone by Joey Saputo, president of the Montreal Impact of the United Soccer League's First Division, the tier below MLS.

"We want to be at the highest level possible and MLS is the highest level possible in North America," Saputo told a new conference yesterday. "I guess it's not necessarily if it can happen, but when it can happen. We're not going to hide the fact that we have been speaking to MLS and if the opportunity for Montreal to go to that league happens, then we'll be ready for it."

Gillett became majority owner of the Canadiens in 2001. In 2007, he teamed with owner Tom Hicks, owner of the NHL's Dallas Stars and Major League Baseball's Texas Rangers, to purchase Liverpool of the English Premier League. It was reportedly recently Gillett, also the owner of the Gillett Evernham NASCAR racing team, agreed to have his Liverpool interest bought out by Hicks.

The Saputo family runs a major and reportedly very lucrative dairy-processing and food-services business.

Saputo is currently completing a privately financed, 13,000-seat, soccer-only stadium -- Stade Saputo -- where the Impact will play in the upcoming season. But the stadium was designed to be expandable to 20,000-22,000 seats and, according to La Presse, Montreal's French-language daily, Gillett and Saputo have agreed to spend an additional $12 million to increase the seating capacity. It was also reported that the two men would likely split a $30-million expansion fee and would be equal partners should the league grant them a franchise.

MLS begins its 13th season this weekend with 14 teams. It also has awarded an expansion franchise to Seattle to begin play in 2009 and to Philadelphia to start in 2010. Given the new stadium, plus the sales and marketing infrastructure represented by the Impact and the Canadiens, Montreal could be ready join the league as soon as next season, which is considered to be a huge plus.

In an e-mail to the New York Times, MLS commissioner Don Garber said talks are underway with both Saputo and Gillett.

"Montreal is a market we are evaluating for a potential expansion team in Major League Soccer," Garber wrote. "We announced in November that we have had discussions with the Saputo family about expansion in Montreal and we have subsequently met with representatives of the Gillett Entertainment Group. Our policy is that we do not comment on the specifics of expansion discussions."

Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correpondent.

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