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.”
Critiquing every MLS uniform, head to toe
New York City FC
New York City FC took some heat for its sky blue home shirt, which looks a whole lot like the one worn by parent/sister club Manchester City. But an homage was inevitable, and NYCFC has differentiated itself from MCFC, and the rest of MLS, with the white shorts and socks. It’s a sharp look. The away kit, highlighted by a flash of orange (from the city flag) at the neck and five stripes you can barely see that "represent the five boroughs of New York City," is lazy. With a blank template, NYCFC should’ve come up with something other than the mono-black already worn in D.C. and Columbus.
After several overhauls—LA wore black and teal, then teal and yellow, then yellow and green—the Galaxy’s white and blue brand has taken root. Three championships in four years certainly help. The sash on the home uniform, re-introduced in 2012, has quickly become iconic, and, along with the socks, helps make this all-white kit stand out. The new secondary set maintains the same feel as its recent predecessors. The yellow accents look sharp, but we can’t help but feel a white or yellow sash would tie the uniforms and brand together.
Of the four MLS teams with an all-red home uniform (that’s 20 percent of the league), the Fire were first. They’re the “Men in Red,” after all. But Chicago began veering away from its traditional look in 2012. First the famous white hoop became blue. Then last year, the blue expanded to the chest and shoulders. It doesn’t look bad, but it doesn’t seem right, either. The new away kit is another all-white offering. But at least designers put a bit of thought into this one. The thin, light blue hoops on the shirt and socks, intended to reflect the design of the city flag, are a nice touch.
Montreal exemplifies MLS/Adidas’ fixation on tiny details rather than the impact (sorry) a uniform makes when viewed from more than three feet away, which is where most people watch a game. The new away kit features a tiny silver fleur-de-lis affixed to the back and more woven subtly into the fabric. But overall, it’s just another anonymous all-white uniform that mirrors the existing, plain blue primary set. The tragedy is that Montreal’s gorgeous blue-and-black striped alternate, which would be the only striped kit in MLS, is gathering dust. It should be the club’s primary.
D.C. United calls itself the “Black and Red,” but its uniform palette typically has ignored the latter. That’s been rectified with the club’s new secondary kit, which features a welcome splash of red on the traditional white jersey. The home uniform, which carries over from 2014, still looks unfinished without the white chest stripes that were dropped in 2008. If D.C. could find a way to re-introduce them, perhaps above the sponsor logo and behind the crest, it once again would boast one of the sport’s most distinctive designs.
Real Salt Lake
RSL stubbornly refuses to look great. It took a small step forward with its new secondary uniform, which now features two blue sleeves. It's too bad there isn’t even more of RSL’s beautiful claret, cobalt, and gold color scheme in the kit. The red home set carries over from 2014, making it six seasons since RSL abandoned the claret shirt, cobalt shorts/socks combo it wore when winning its only MLS title. The yellow chest stripe adds a little something extra, but RSL’s preference for an all-red kit similar to others around the league instead of a classy, one-of-a-kind look with championship pedigree is baffling.
Toronto FC’s new home set could be the reddest uniform in the history of a league that loves red uniforms, which we suppose is noteworthy (guess Adidas insisted on the contrasting three stripes). Club management has focused on building a team capable of ending an eight-year playoff drought, likely leaving little time for kit design. The holdover secondary set is charcoal gray, which features in the TFC logo and is a unique uniform color in MLS. The hooped socks finish off a striking look and make us wish there was a bit more gray in the primary.
New England Revolution
The Revs are Exhibit A for the effect a second color, even if it comes from something as mundane as a plain pair of shorts, has on a club’s brand. Long a believer in boring, N.E. last year overhauled its home blues with white shorts and hooped socks. It’s a classy yet instantly recognizable look. The image shake-up continued Tuesday with a new secondary kit inspired by the regional flag flown during the American Revolution. The red-and-white set is clunky and geometric, but it’s different, daring and local. Better to take a chance than look dull and anonymous.
The Union got it right in 2010. The inaugural navy kit with the gold center stripe, reflecting the Philadelphia flag, was iconic. The gold-and-blue away set, a reversal of the primary, was one-of-a-kind. The holdover home uniform still looks great, although the sponsor’s logo wrecks the balance. But the new secondary is a disaster, a needless departure from the brand and an 10th all-white MLS kit. Once innovators, the Union are now followers. The “WE ARE ONE” collar slogan, the tiny snake below the neckline and the embossed stars on the front are lost in a sea of white.
The Vancouver Whitecaps new primary uniform is meant to be experienced up close. It’s slogan heavy. “Our All. Our Honour.” appears inside the neck and on the hip. “SINCE 1974” is on the back. The thin, diagonal pinstripes that featured on the previous home kit have been replaced by light blue shading designed to represent Vancouver’s water and mountains. It’s all a bit too subtle. The shirt will look nice with jeans, but in the end, Vancouver’s all-white kit—and the holdover mono-navy secondary—simply blends in.
Portland quietly switched crests, from a logo featuring its name to a simpler version focusing on the axe and chevrons (the old logo lives on elsewhere). Few teams wear a badge with no writing, but the Timbers can because they’ve built such a powerful brand. Only they could wear the new home set, a bold green-and-white offering anchored by the chevrons. They're a bit wide, and the yellow below the collar clutters the shirt, but it's impressive overall. The road kit, released in 2014, is everything a good one should be: distinctive, perhaps edgy, yet connected to the club. In this case, Rose City red.
The Crew released new home and away sets featuring the club’s revamped logo, a roundel that looks nice enough but makes sense only with a cheat sheet. The explanations (the ‘O’ for Ohio, the founding year, the checkerboard pattern found in flags waived by fans) certainly tie the club to Columbus more than the goofy construction workers did. As the Crew forge ahead, they’ll stay true to their sartorial tradition. The all-yellow primary is simple but elegant, and certainly recognizable. The mono black secondary could use a bit of flourish–why so subtle with the checkers? But it works and shouldn't be needed that often, anyway.
Orlando City SC
The Lions’ love for purple is welcome in a league featuring so many similar looks. But it didn't result in creative inaugural kits. The home uniform features more up-close details, like “jacquard engineered banding…representing Orlando City’s transition to a new era” and even the club's old USL logo inside. The mono-white secondary has colored hoops on the waist and sleeves and includes more small symbols and slogans. But it’s still just another white set. The answer is obvious—swap the socks. The “Chelsea” look is underrated. White hosiery at home and purple on the road would make all the difference.
New York Red Bulls
The Red Bulls have company in New York so have set out to reinforce their tenuous connection to the market within the constraints of the club’s corporate brand. The only white-red-white team in the league, RBNY now must compete with NYCFC’s pale blue. The Red Bulls’ new home set doubles down on that contrast with red sleeves and “NEW YORK” emblazoned on the shirt’s lower left in a manner “mimicking the iconic New York skyline.” The “EST.1996” on the back collar reminds fans who was there (or nearby) first. The holdover secondary definitely is unique and is great in reasonable doses.
Houston’s club motto is “Forever Orange,” and while that remains the cornerstone of the brand, the Dynamo typically add a wrinkle here and there to ensure we’re not beaten over the head with it. The new home uniform is a great example. The white shorts and checkered fade on the jersey add the right amount of contrast. On occasion, the Dynamo have worn monochrome both home and away. But there’s no need to do so, especially on the road. The balance in the primary kit and the immediately identifiable orange shorts with the secondary set showcase the Dynamo at their best.
Sporting Kansas City
From irrelevant to trendsetting, SKC has profited from one of the most successful sports rebrands in recent history. The club now must share light blue with NYCFC, but Sporting still stands out. The new home set is a departure form the bicolor “state line” uniform of 2013-14 and is anchored by a “fashion-forward window pane pattern” that’s almost as preppy as the recent argyle alternate kit. The secondary uniform is stunning. The hoops, which mirror the stripes on the club crest, highlight one of the most eye-catching sets in MLS history. It’ll be tough to see it go after this season.
FCD’s kits are an example of a good idea, poorly executed. The club made an inspired decision to go with hoops when rebranding in 2005, but the jerseys always let them down. Unnecessary seams, plackets and panels always ruined the shirt. Dallas gave up last year and went with a boring all-red primary. But it stuck with the hoops on the new blue-and-white secondary, where the side panels and sleeves still disrupt the flow. Both blue and white shorts are an option. Our 2016 ideal: a primary jersey with seamless, sleek red and blue hoops. Unique and colorful, but less jarring. Make it happen.
Another club that’s bounced from brand to brand (green-and-white, blue-and-black), the Rapids have settled in nicely with the unique but elegant burgundy-shirt, white-shorts combo. The sleeves, which mirror those worn by sister club Arsenal, add a subtle touch of flair. The new away uniform is a prime example of how a secondary kit can be tasteful and connect to a club’s brand. Last season’s mono blue state-flag set has evolved into a sharp gold-and-blue kit that maintains Colorado's colors and stands out from the crowd. We’re not fans of recolored badges—logos should be sacrosanct—but overall it’s a winner.
The club that brought us rave green, cascade shale, super cyan and electricity has succumbed to the all-white virus. Seattle is one of five MLS clubs to adopt the look this season, ensuring half the league now embraces the white-out copout. The Sounders new away kit is especially devoid of any personality—a surprising choice for a club that has much of it. The new home set features a less cluttered shirt than in seasons past. It’s a template, but it’s a step up. The uniform also features blue shorts and socks for the first time. Here’s hoping we see it as often as possible.
San Jose Earthquakes
"Earthquakes" is an appropriate moniker for a club that’s experienced so much upheaval. While the new Avaya Stadium offers stability, the brand remains in flux. SJ’s '14 overhaul produced a beautiful blue-and-black primary kit that’s already a modern classic. But the logo, awkwardly anchored by “Quakes”—a nickname of a nickname—lacks gravitas. We liked the re-introduction of the NASL-era red, which inspired last year’s away kit. That’s been replaced by a new white secondary set (yes, another one). It lacks the creativity, individuality and ambition that should be associated with a Bay Area club on the rise.