WASHINGTON – In Quebec, there’s truth to the provincial motto. And that posed a challenge for its Major League Soccer team.
“Je me souviens,” which means “I remember,” was carved above the entrance to Quebec’s parliament building some 130 years ago and it apparently still applies to fans in Montreal, where the Impact’s miserable 2014 season wasn’t forgotten just because the calendar flipped.
“Honestly, the buzz for the Impact is gone,” club owner Joey Saputo told reporters last month. "The disappointment is thinking we'd be more relevant in the city after three years [in MLS] … Maybe we're not the soccer market we thought we were. If it means we have to work harder, we'll work harder. But I won't hide my disappointment with where we are in the overall sports landscape of Montreal."
The Impact won only six regular season games last year, but a 2-1-1 run in the Canadian Championship propelled coach Frank Klopas’ squad to the 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League. There, it beat out the New York Red Bulls and El Salvador’s FAS for a surprising spot in the quarterfinals.
That wasn’t enough to convince Montreal supporters, however. Ticket sales for the March 3 second leg against Pachuca were lagging at around 15,000 a month before kickoff, at which point Saputo expressed his concern. The Impact drew more than 55,000 fans to its 2009 CCL quarterfinal against Santos Laguna and an average crowd of 22,772 in 2012, its inaugural MLS campaign. But regular season attendance fell 23 percent over just two years.
“If you don’t win in Montreal, they’re not going to come out,” goalkeeper Evan Bush told SI.com. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s a lot to do in Montreal. It’s a city of events and they want their teams to win and they want their teams to do well. And if you’re not doing well, they’re going to let you know for sure.”
Said Saputo during his February media availability, “If people are saying, 'Let's see what kind of team we have before buying season tickets,' I can say we did our part … We changed the team. We saw what wasn't working last year. We brought in 11 new players. The 12th player, our fans, is tougher to sign."
On Feb. 24, at the conclusion of a two-week training camp in Mexico, Klopas sent a starting 11 out to meet Pachuca that included seven players acquired since the conclusion of the 2014 MLS season. Two more came aboard only last summer. One of those two, Dilly Duka, tallied the goals that allowed the Impact to escape the Estadio Hidalgo with a stunning 2-2 draw.
And that caught Montreal’s attention. Sales surged, and when the team took the field at the Stade Olympique the following week, it was greeted by more than 38,000 partisans.
“Fans were waiting for the result in Mexico and the opportunity to see the new faces with the Impact,” executive VP of soccer operations Richard Legendre told the club website. “They were not disappointed.”
By the end of the evening of course, they were ecstatic. Rookie forward Cameron Porter’s stoppage-time goal secured a last-gasp, 1-1 draw and a spot in the CCL semis.
Only two MLS teams had defeated Mexican opposition in a home-and-home series. Few expected a club coming of a six-win season to make it three.
“We started seven new guys in that first game. Nine guys who weren’t on the team to start last year started that game,” Bush said. “It gave us, not the confidence, necessarily, but we didn’t carry over from last year. A lot of new guys helped us feel like it was a brand new start.”
Said Klopas, “We planned and prepared right and I think the players bought in and had a good mentality. We became a team and I think, more than anything on that trip [to Mexico], we bonded as a group.”
Unlike many fans, the Impact couldn’t afford to let last season’s aftertaste linger. They were better off not remembering. Klopas, who managed his hometown Chicago Fire for three seasons before moving to Montreal, needed to engineer an upgrade on the field and in the locker room. He needed talented players, as well as men who could help heal a team that was occasionally fractured and almost always frustrated.
“They had a good first half and they had a disastrous second half [in 2013] and there were no changes with the team. Actually, we lost players [during the 2014 season]. We lost [Collen] Warner. We lost [Hernán] Bernardello—guys we couldn’t keep. So the minute things didn’t go right, well the mentality is almost like nothing changes. ‘Here we go again,’ like the season before, and it was hard to change that with the guys,” Klopas said. “Bringing in 11 new players with quality, guys who not only have the quality and a different kind of mentality, the way they see things, that’s [no longer] the case. That sense of belief, no matter what the score is, we never give up.”
Bush, now in his fifth season at the club, offered an example of how fragile the Impact’s collective psyche became last season.
“We’ve got a better locker room this year. Last year, our locker room was a bit divided. I don’t want to throw the guy under the bus, but Matteo [Ferrari] made the comment at the start of last year that we’re not as good as we need to be. We didn’t make any changes. On the surface, maybe that was true. But he said it in the media and the guys in the locker room saw that and it created a divide in the locker room. That kind of hurt, especially the younger guys who are thinking now, ‘O.K., this guy doesn’t value what I bring to the team.’ From that standpoint, the locker room is a lot tighter this year. Everybody’s in it for the same reason.”
Ferrari’s exit, along with several others, helped pave the way for a defensive overhaul that led to four new starters in front of Bush during the CCL quarterfinals—right back Victor Cabrera (River Plate), center backs Bakary Soumaré (Chicago Fire) and Laurent Ciman (Standard Liège) and left back Donny Toia (Chivas USA). Ahead of them, Nigel Reo-Coker (Chivas USA), Marco Donadel (Napoli) and Ignacio Piatti (signed last August from San Lorenzo) rounded out Klopas’ revamp of the Impact spine.
With reserves like Patrice Bernier, the second leading MLS scorer in club history, and former New York Red Bulls starter Eric Alexander, Montreal has genuine midfield depth. Dominic Oduro, Jack McInerney and, now, Porter, offer options up front, and Klopas said that forward Andrés Romero is close to returning from injury. The Argentine should be training fully by the end of this week.
That new stockpile of talent and resolve will be needed. On Saturday, the Impact fell back to earth a bit with a 1-0 loss to D.C. United in their MLS opener. It was a game that, for significant stretches, looked very much like the first game of a season.
“Not every game is going to be like the Pachuca game,” Klopas said afterward.
Klopas and his players weren’t thrilled with the condition of the RFK Stadium pitch, which had been hit hard by rain and snow, and there was some grumbling about the referee’s silence when Hassoun Camara’s point-blank, 75th-minute shot struck the right arm of D.C.’s Conor Doyle on the goal line.
Worst of all was the injury to Mapp, the dynamic veteran attacker whose collision with goalkeeper Bill Hamid and a United defender resulted in an elbow dislocation and fracture that will require surgery. Mapp was due to miss the CCL semifinal opener against Costa Rica’s L.D. Alajuelense through yellow card accumulation. He’ll now be out an additional four months.
Montreal is off this weekend, its sights now set firmly on LDA’s March 18 visit. A good first-leg, home result is mandatory. MLS clubs have a losing record in Central America, and D.C. United got a taste of LDA’s prowess at the Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto in a 5-2 quarterfinal thumping last month. MLS’ oft-shattered continental hopes now rest solely on the reborn Impact, who will head to Costa Rica for the decider on April 7.
Bush said Saturday’s setback in Washington, and any bad luck that accompanied it, will not derail his team’s reinvigorated confidence or emerging sense of identity.
“It became a habit of losing,” he said of last season. “We didn’t have that killer mentality—‘we’re supposed to win this game.’ We had guys who waited for things to happen. I think it’s different this year.”
Montreal sold 10,000 tickets for the LDA match last Friday, when they went on sale. By Monday, two days after the D.C. loss, it reached 15,000. Recent memories trump fading ones. The scenes following Porter’s goal were electric. For Klopas, it was a sign that his team is on the right track.
“It’s a long season. I know when we went crazy when we won against Pachuca, we talked about being even keeled. [Saturday], we lost. It wasn’t a great game,” he said. “For us it’s about regrouping. And we will. We have a good group. There’s quality and depth in the team and we’ll be ready now for Alajuelense when we play at home, and for the MLS season.”