Saturday November 7th, 2015

There’s plenty of heft to that small, elastic armband. It affirms, empowers and amplifies. It validates a captain’s career, but represents significant responsibility as well. It can invigorate some and burden others.

There came a point this summer when Patrice Bernier began to struggle under the weight of that armband. The midfielder, then 35, never expected to start every game of the Montreal Impact’s season. The Brossard, Quebec native knew he was edging toward the end of a long career that started in 2000 with his hometown club then took him to Norway, Germany and Denmark. Bernier returned to the Impact in 2012, in time for its first MLS campaign. He was the league’s player of the month that August, the club’s MVP that season and an All-Star Game starter the following year. In 2014, Bernier was named the seventh captain in Impact history.

But the march of time and a winter rebuild altered his 2015 expectations. Montreal added around a dozen players as it sought to rebound from a last-place season, among them midfielders Marco Donadel, Nigel Reo-Coker and Eric Alexander. Bernier certainly didn’t anticipate starting every game. He saw the bigger picture. But he assumed he’d be in coach Frank Klopas’s regular rotation. Bernier still expected to lead from a position of influence, not from the margins. He still hoped to meet the demands of that armband.

Instead, Bernier—now a playoff hero for a team that’s 90 minutes away from the Eastern Conference finals—was a spectator. He played only 59 minutes during the Impact’s surreal six-game run to the CONCACAF Champions League silver medal, and started just three MLS matches through the end of July. The tension was building, and Bernier’s wife took to Facebook to slam Klopas for his “ridiculous, unacceptable, disrespectful” treatment of the club captain. In early August, Bernier asked for a few days away to collect his thoughts.

“Players respect performance. Even if players respect what I’ve done in this league and I have 50 caps [with Canada]—that’s always going to be there—but when you’re not on the field and you can’t get on the field, it becomes difficult to pass on the message from the bench. This is my home. I always felt I had the responsibility to stay involved and help the guys understand what this club was about,” Bernier told SI.com.

“You feel you’re losing that power. You’re losing that influence,” he added. “I couldn’t help on the field because clearly I wasn’t playing, and at that time I couldn’t be the guy that was optimistic and grabbing the other guys, the younger guys who aren’t playing, and saying, ‘Keep believing! You’re going to have your shot’ … I had to step way for a few days and get back to myself. I don’t think I was myself, in terms of having the energy to be optimistic.”

Montreal lost its next three games and on Aug. 30, Klopas was fired and replaced on an interim basis by former Impact player and long-time assistant Mauro Biello.

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“The day he was confirmed, I called [Biello] quickly to say that I’m here, willing to help and whatever he needs, I’m here,” Bernier said. “The next day before training, he grabbed me for five minutes. I had a little foot injury and knew I couldn’t do anything for a week or so but he said, ‘I know what you can do. When you get back on your feet, you’ll get a shot. Then it’s for you to seize it."

Bernier’s hope and motivation were rekindled. Didier Drogba arrived, and Montreal’s season and supporters were invigorated. The Impact went on a 7-2-2 run, climbing to third in the East, and Bernier played in each of the regular season’s final seven games, starting three. On Sept. 23—his 36th birthday—he set up the decisive goal in a 2-1 win over the Chicago Fire.

Biello was resetting expectations and tweaking roles and tactics, and he impressed Montreal technical director Adam Braz, another former Impact player.

“He was clear with what he wanted from each player and what he expects performance-wise, attitude-wise, things that he wanted to see that he hadn’t seen during the year,” Braz told SI.com. “He told the squad that they would all play a role, and they have. If you look at the stretch run, he needed everyone. Everyone had a role to play. We’ve seen a winning spirit and mentality from the group.”

Among Biello’s new wrinkles was a 4-3-3 alignment that tied Donadel tighter to the back four and offered a bit more leeway to the other two central midfielders. That suited Bernier, who prefers the freedom to push forward, cover more ground, combine with the forwards and rely on his experience when making choices during a match.

“It gave us flexibility, and it’s working,” Bernier said of Biello’s adjustments.

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​ Bernier started with Reo-Coker and Donadel in Montreal’s knockout-round showdown with visiting Toronto FC on Oct. 29 and helped the hosts steamroll their rivals. The captain opened the scoring in the 18th minute when he made a smart run behind two TFC defenders, ran onto a feed from Ignacio Piatti and then rolled a shot underneath goalkeeper Chris Konopka. It was Bernier’s first MLS goal since 2013.  Montreal was leading by a pair 21 minutes later when Bernier, standing near the end line to the right of the TFC net, touched the ball past Justin Morrow with his left foot before sending a delicate right-footed chip to Drogba, who was all alone at the far post.

“He was great,” Drogba told reporters following the 3-0 triumph, the Impact’s first playoff win in its four-year MLS history. “His goal was fantastic. He’s a true leader of this team. I’m really happy for him because he had some difficult moments. But he never gave up … That’s why he’s our captain. That’s why he’s our leader.”

Montreal was on to the conference semifinals against the second-seeded Columbus Crew, which took a 33rd-minute lead in last Sunday’s first leg at Stade Saputo.

Only one MLS club scored more goals than Columbus this season. The Crew are quick, incisive and deadly against a disorganized foe.

Minas Panagiotakis/Getty

“You’re down against a team like that, you know you have to open it up and it makes it easier for them to find players if you don’t equalize right away to put some pressure back on them,” said Bernier, who was starting again. “I knew we needed to get back into that game quick, before we got into the second half and the game opened up.”

Four minutes later, as Donadel lined up a corner kick, Bernier saw his opening. His experience and savvy kicked in. The 5’9” midfielder had noticed he was open on an earlier free kick and thought he could exploit the Crew’s zonal marking scheme.

“I just told myself, they don’t pay attention to you. They don’t believe I’m going to score,” Bernier said.

He shook his initial mark as he moved quickly toward the near post and slipped between Gastón Sauro and Kei Kamara. Bernier’s ensuing header was unsaveable.

In the 77th minute, shortly after Bernier left the game, Montreal took the lead on a goal by the man who relieved him, Johan Venegas. The Impact (17-13-6) will take that 2-1 aggregate advantage over Columbus (15-12-8) into Sunday’s decisive second leg at the Crew’s Mapfre Stadium.

In two playoff starts, Bernier played 150 minutes (more than 22% of his regular season total), tallied two goals and one assist and connected on 85% of his passes.

“What’s important is that when Patrice was called upon, he was there and he produced. It’s a good example to other players and definitely to younger players. It can be frustrating when you don’t play, and it’s completely understandable. But you stay ready and tuned in,” Braz said. “He’s not a ranter or a raver-type captain, a leader that’s going to come in and scream and yell. He tries to lead by example and when he’s on the field, to give 110% and do whatever’s necessary to help the team win. I think if you watch his play in the stretch run, that’s exactly what he did. We’re playing Columbus, a good team that’s well coached, and we go down a goal and he pops in at a difficult moment and scores a header. That’s what he’s about, just kind of doing whatever he can and figuring out how to help the team.”

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It’s possible that Bernier owes his renaissance in part to his lack of regular season playing time. His energy was preserved and his resolve was tested. Now comes an opportunity that may make that angst worthwhile. His hometown team is 90 minutes from a spot in MLS’s final four. Bernier has rediscovered his rhythm and confidence and finally can be the contributing captain he’s always wanted to be—just in time for the games that matter most.

“It’s a bit surreal right now. I think I felt from the beginning that this group had potential,” he said. “In terms of that process, I was the leader of this team but now we’re building a new cycle and I’m helping us to build that new cycle and slowly it’s going to be the team of somebody else in about a year or two. But now, I’m still part of the team.”

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