For soccer fans across the province of Quebec, 2012 will be a memorable year.
The Montreal Impact’s entry into Major League Soccer marked a dramatic turnaround: soccer is no longer a faraway fantasy but a burgeoning reality, ready to stake its claim as an integral part of Quebec’s sporting landscape.
Despite not being able to immediately make the playoffs and though many things did take time to get into full stride, the Impact’s expansion season was a success.
The results on the field were initially slow in coming, but as the season wore on, with adjustments to the roster and coach Jesse Marsch finding the right elements on the field, the campaign took a turn for the better. What was at the outset a typically brittle expansion side, by the end of the season had gradually become a stout force to be reckoned with, highlighted by the five-game winning streak through July and August.
Though the home opener and David Beckham’s LA Galaxy provided fervent full houses at the Olympic Stadium, the first games at the newly expanded Saputo Stadium failed to provide the expected sell outs and fanfare. The second game against the Houston Dynamo drew less than 13 000 fans.
Alarmed by the underwhelming showing, the Impact lowered their ticket prices in the beginning of July and Saputo Stadium was subsequently sold out for the remainder of the year, even after it had become apparent that making the playoffs would no longer be possible.
The Impact’s ability to learn on the go and effectively react to the hurdles that came their way both on and off the field played a big part in the club’s achievements in the first season.
The roster was also, on the whole, very well put together.
In the summer of 2011, when sporting director Nick De Santis first spoke about how the Impact were preparing for the process of joining MLS, he stressed the importance of being able “to get players at a good price that can give you good minutes.” The Impact have spent their money well: there are very few players that one could argue are being paid too much. Twenty-one players have already been signed up for next season and, if they so please, the Impact still have enough room to add two designated players.
The squad is also comprised of a good mix of both experienced players such as forward Marco Di Vaio, midfielders Patrice Bernier and Davy Arnaud, and defenders Alessandro Nesta and Matteo Ferrari, and young promising players such as forward Andrew Wenger, midfielders Felipe and Calum Mallace, and defenders Zarek Valentin and Karl Ouimette.
Though the Impact finished the season stronger than they started, they are still two to three significant signings away from being a playoff team. A creative central midfielder and winger, as well as a second forward, are high on the Impact’s priority list.
But after parting ways with Marsch in late October after only one season in charge, 2013 is difficult to predict. The club has yet to find a replacement, though owner Joey Saputo recently confirmed via his Twitter account that the coaching search is down to two candidates.
The next coach is expected to be an experienced European. However, European coaches have been predominantly unsuccessful in MLS. A reassuring factor is that the forthcoming coach will not have to build a new team from scratch or revolutionize the roster. The Impact’s squad is just about complete: he will only need to focus on getting the best out of the players that are already at his disposal.
Speaking to several players during the post-season training camp in Italy, the consensus was that the areas where the Impact are in most need of improvement are on set pieces and playing on the road.
The Impact were excellent at home in 2012, but it will be imperative for them to be able to acquire more points on the road if they wish to make the playoffs next year. But along with Kansas City, Houston, New York, Columbus, Chicago and DC in the Eastern conference, they will also have to travel to Los Angeles – to play the Galaxy – San Jose, Seattle and Portland in the Western conference, which will be a far more difficult proposition than last year’s fixtures.
Hence, the quality of the road game will require almost drastic improvement. Whether a European coach will be able to propel the Impact to the next level remains to be seen.
2012 was an excellent year for the Impact’s academy sides as well. The U-16 and U-18 academy teams joined the flourishing and more challenging USSF. The U-21 team reached the final of the CSL, went undefeated in a series of friendly exhibitions against French academies in France and five of the team’s players we’re protagonists in a convincing 4-1 win against the prestigious Fiorentina academy during the club’s Italian camp.
Ouimette’s ascension to the first team – the first academy player to do so – capped off a very promising year.
As far as facilities are concerned, the newly renovated Saputo Stadium is a beautiful venue and one that brings a unique vibe to the Quebec sporting scene. The next step will be to build a new training centre that the club can call its own. Claude Robillard is an outdated public facility and some players have voiced their disapproval with Saputo and De Santis over its inadequacy.
Plans for a new training facility is in the works, but it’s a few years away.
Still, the passion and commitment that the Saputo family has brought to establishing and developing this club is commendable. A strong foundation has been put in place and it bodes well for the future of the Impact.
The best that North American soccer has to offer is here. Young soccer players across Quebec now have a place where they can fulfill their dreams. Never has there been a more exciting time to be a fan of the beautiful game in this province.
Nick Sabetti is a Montreal-based writer who covers the Montreal Impact for Goal.com. Follow Nick on Twitter.