Just call Montreal Impact midfielder Samuel Piette the “Iron Man.”
People who follow Major League Soccer closely know all about Ignacio Piatti, the Argentine playmaker who has been one of the best players in the league since signing with the Impact four years ago and who is the straw the stirs the drink for Montreal.
But Piette’s contributions to the cause in 2018, his first full campaign with the Impact, shouldn’t be overlooked. His steady play in central midfield is one reason why Montreal is still in the playoff hunt with two games remaining in the regular season.
Piette, a 23-year-old native of Quebec, returned home last summer when he signed with the Impact after spending several years in Europe where he turned out for clubs in Germany and Spain. He ended up playing 11 games down the MLS season stretch, but the young Canadian’s presence wasn’t enough to turn a failing Impact side into a playoff team.
This year has been a different story. Under new coach Remi Garde, Piette has won plaudits for his consistent form while playing in the heart of the Montreal midfield. Piette’s game isn’t flashy and it doesn’t draw a lot of attention, but his selflessness in doing the unfashionable muck work in the middle of the park has been crucial to the Impact’s counter-attack and to the tactical identity the team has forged during Garde’s short tenure.
Piette has also earned a reputation for his durability. The defensive midfielder has started in all 32 of the Impact’s MLS games this year, and has been subbed out only twice. He leads the team in minutes played in MLS with 2,820 (out of a possible 2,880) and if you tack on the two complete games he started in the Canadian Championship semifinals, Piette has played 3,000 minutes this season.
When you take into account last season, Piette has started in each of the Impact’s last 45 games in MLS and the Canadian Championship for a total of 3,960 minutes of playing time.
“It’s a lot of work, but I’m young, so I can handle it,” Piette quipped in a recent interview with Sportsnet.
“I’ve often said it’s on the pitch that I can help the team… I’m really happy that [Garde] values me and that I’m an important piece for his team.”
He only stands five-foot-seven, but Piette plays with a physical presence that belies his modest frame. He’s a tough tackler who’s proven to be fearless in his attempts to close down opposing players, and hard to knock off the ball once he’s won back possession. His style of play has been a perfect match for Garde’s tactics, allowing him to flourish as Montreal’s defensive stopper in midfield.
“He believes having a compact and strong [defensive] block in our zone is the best for us, because we have fast players on the dribble on the counter. He wants us, not to sit back and just watch, but to drop back in our zone and be active in the block, but also put pressure on the ball, and make sure [opponents] don’t play through us. Then after winning the ball to move forward was quickly as possible,” Piette explained.
“For me, to be comfortable in my position and sitting back a bit, not necessarily always running around and chasing the ball, it’s very good for my game.”
Piette’s contributions on the pitch tell only part of his story this season. He’s also taken a leadership role off the field.
Montreal struggled to find its way under Garde at the beginning of the MLS season. After a 2-2 start, the Impact collected just three points during April and May, losing eight of nine games during that two-month span.
Tensions were mounting as the team dealt with a litany of injury issues, and Garde, perhaps unwisely, sounded off on some of his bench players to the local media. A reporter who covers the team told Sportsnet that one training session became very heated when several players raised their voices and snapped at each other.
It all came to a head in June when Piette spoke to Piatti, fellow midfielder Saphir Taïder and goalkeeper Evan Bush about the situation. At that point, the coaching staff encouraged the team to have a players-only meeting in order to work out their issues and clear the air. A senior group of players then reported back to the coaches to talk about what was discussed.
Piette credits that players meeting for Montreal’s turnaround in the second half of the season.
“I think there’s been a mentality change,” Piette said.
“We have great players, and maybe sometimes – not to mention any names – maybe we had some players who just wanted to play well but were thinking more about themselves than the team. Now it’s a very collective effort. Now we put the team before every person.”
Fullback Daniel Lovitz echoed Piette’s sentiments.
“It formalized the communication between the players and the coaching staff. Anybody who was paying attention understood that we were having some issues with that… We were trying to figure out what was the best way to get what we wanted from each other,” Loivitz explained.
“That [meeting] was where we were forced into discussing things and we were able to come up with some topics and ideas to present to the coach in a more formal fashion. I think that really benefited us, and that was a major turning point, as we were able to move forward in a more positive way after that.”
Indeed, the Impact went on a four-game winning streak in June and July, and they’ve only lost four times in their last 17 MLS games. They climbed to sixth in the Eastern Conference, and held down that final playoff berth until last weekend when they were leapfrogged by D.C. United, the hottest team in the league at the moment.
D.C. has a four-point edge over Montreal with two games to play, so it’s looking bleak for the Impact’s playoff chances.
But Montreal showed great spirit in coming back in the second half of the season like they did after that players meeting.
“We’re playing as team, and being more like a family united on the pitch,” Piette said. “And [Garde] says what he thinks and is very direct with us. There’s no grey zone – it’s very black and white.”