Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber yesterday gave his strongest indication yet that Philadelphia will have its own soccer franchise by 2010 - and that its stadium will be built in nearby Chester City.

"We believe that a team in Chester will serve to really enrich the lives of the citizens of the city, but also the citizens of the community and this region generally," Garber said after meeting with Delaware County officials and a group of potential investors.

The group is led by Jay Sugarman, chief executive of New York-based iStar Financial, and includes James Nevels, departing chairman of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission and founder of the Swarthmore Group, and real-estate developer Robert Buccini, an owner of the Buccini/Pollin Group.

The league is negotiating simultaneously with the investors and public officials to secure financing for a $120 million stadium complex that would be built along the Delaware River just south of the Commodore Barry Bridge in Chester.

Gov. Rendell and Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi - the former mayor of Chester - have indicated their support for the project, along with county officials who hope to use it as an anchor for future waterfront development.

Garber said public and private funding must be locked in by early December for a Philadelphia soccer team to play in its new stadium in the 2010 season.

"It's not an 'if' question; it's a 'when' question," he said, referring to the likelihood of an expansion team in the Philadelphia market.

Garber also paid homage to the Sons of Ben, a Philly-based MLS fan club formed in January to build support for a local franchise and more recently the Chester stadium. The group is running an online season-ticket drive to prove that there is demand for a Philadelphia team.

"We couldn't be happier about the news that, hopefully, Philly will be in the next round of expansion," said Sons of Ben co-founder Bryan James. *