MONTREAL -- The Montreal Impact are moving closer and closer to restoring the city's major-league status.
Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber addressed a Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal luncheon Wednesday, just over one month before the Impact will make their home debut as an MLS expansion team at Olympic Stadium.
"We never would have dreamed that we would have had over 50,000 people coming to the opening game of one of our expansion teams just a couple of years ago," said Garber, who expressed confidence that Impact owner Joey Saputo would be successful in selling out the home of the 1976 Olympics.
Olympic Stadium hosted baseball's Montreal Expos from 1977 until 2004, when the former National League team was relocated by Major League Baseball to Washington, D.C.
Over 32,000 tickets have already been sold to Impact's March 17 home opener against the Chicago Fire.
"If you haven't bought tickets, buy tickets. If you have, buy 10 more," Garber joked.
The domed Big O will host the Impact's first five games while expansion of Saputo Stadium is completed. The renovations will increase seating from 13,034 to 20,341 at the open-air stadium, built in the shadow of Olympic Stadium in 2008.
Saputo is pleased with the progress the franchise has made in transitioning from a second-tier team to the top level of North American professional soccer.
"It's getting there. We still have a long way to go," Saputo said. "The important thing is that we're making progress and we're heading in the right direction but I still don't feel that the city really understands, really grasps what's coming.
"Like the commissioner said, we're going to have over 58,000 people at our first game, and we will. I think people are going to start to realize what it's all about and hopefully they will jump on."
Garber drew applause from the business crowd when he revealed that MLS has retained Montreal-based advertising agency Sid Lee.
"Interesting that we have a French-Canadian advertising agency helping us in America and around the world to try and translate this game and try and find ways to deeply connect our audiences," said Garber, who credited Saputo with introducing him to the agency's work.
"We were very impressed. They came in and made a pitch that blew us away," he said.
While that news resonated with the audience, Garber later noted that it was another part of his speech that he thought would have drawn cheers.
"I felt that it would get a round of applause when I said Canada would get into the World Cup -- nobody applauded," Garber said. "I said Sid Lee and the place erupted."
In pointing out that all MLS teams are required to have youth development programs, Garber stated that having three Canadian teams, including Toronto and Vancouver, will "develop the next generation of great Canadian players so that Canada can qualify for the World Cup."
Canada's only World Cup appearance was in 1986, when it went 0-3 in Mexico.
"That is a very, very important goal for us and I would actually say that the first indicator of true success for Major League Soccer in this country is when Canada will qualify for its first World Cup in many, many years," he said.
Saputo has made it clear that he wants to acquire a designated player for the Impact, but it is not Italian central defender Matteo Ferrari, who joined the team's training camp in Carson, Calif., on Tuesday.
Asked how he was able to able to retain the veteran of over 200 Serie A games without making him a designated player, Saputo said, "because we did a good job of negotiating the contract."
Garber was asked how the league would be involved in resolving the thorny issue of veteran forward Brian Ching. Montreal's first overall pick in the MLS expansion draft, Ching has left the Impact's camp and is negotiating a return to Houston, which left him unprotected in the draft.
"Based on our unique structure we're going to help it work out best for all parties," Garber said.