MONTREAL — The Montreal Impact are banking on fitness as one answer to late-game breakdowns that plagued the Major League Soccer club last season.
New coach Remi Garde ran the players hard during the first week of training camp in Florida.
"The first thing was to try to get to know each other as quickly as possible, in and out of training," Garde said Thursday, with his team back at its east end training centre. "But most important was to get ready physically.
"We worked on endurance. As I told the players, seasons are long and if you want to play between 40 and 50 matches over nine months, 90 minutes per game, you need to prepare in consequence."
The Impact were a mistake-prone group last season as they missed the playoffs after having reached the Eastern Conference final in 2016. Many points were lost by conceding late goals. They were also weak on set piece defence.
Garde, hired from Lyon to replace Mauro Biello in November, hopes to fix those shortcomings along with rebuilding an aging team into a younger, fitter, tighter group.
Over-30 veterans like Laurent Ciman, Hassoun Camara, Patrice Bernier and Hernan Bernardello are gone, while eight new players have arrived, including 25-year-old designated player Saphir Taider and 20-year-old Chilean midfelder Jeisson Vargas. Garde said more newcomers will be added.
So far, the returning players like what they’ve seen from the new coaching staff.
"The proof is in the pudding in terms of the goals and the nature and context in which we were giving them up last year," said left back Daniel Lovitz. "There are no ifs, ands or buts about why that was."
"It comes from a lack of concentration. After your body goes, your mind goes as well. I think this year that’s obviously a point of emphasis. I think we made a good first step toward making sure it doesn’t occur again this year."
Goalkeeper Evan Bush said Garde’s approach could help the team come together more quickly than expected, considering the large turnover of players and coaches.
"We worked extremely hard the first week — we were there eight days and it felt like three weeks, and that’s not just because (Dominic) Oduro was my roommate," said Bush, with a dig at his flamboyant teammate. "If we can keep this work ethic and mentality going into the next four or five weeks, into the opening game, then we have the potential to surprise people with how quickly we can get this thing going.
"Physical and mental fitness can go hand in hand. This past week, the emphasis was on the physical side but you’re also building the mental side of it. So when we get to the 85th minute this year and things are tough and we’re suffering, maybe we’ll also be able to think a little more clearly and close games out the right way."
Who will be on the pitch when the regular season opens in Vancouver on March 4 is still up in the air.
The Impact remain thin at centreback and attacking players.
There’s a chance that left-side centreback Nehuen Paz may join them. The six-foot-three Argentine was acquired this week by Bologna FC, whose president Joey Saputo also runs the Impact. Bologna would need to clear a spot for an international player to add Nehuen and may elect to loan him to Montreal instead. The Impact traded for an extra international spot this week.
Garde called it a complex situation but said Nehuen remains in the team’s "pipeline."
Montreal got Taider from Bologna but had to send playmaking midfielder Blerim Dzemaili back to the Italian Serie A club.
The Impact are to work out for a week indoors at Olympic Stadium, then head to Las Vegas to begin pre-season play, starting Feb. 10 against the Las Vegas Lights.