Impact blame bad leadership, cliques for finish

The Montreal Impact's was a season that started badly and only got marginally better. (Graham Hughes/CP)

MONTREAL — Montreal Impact players painted a picture of a leaderless, clique-ridden squad as they wrapped up a dismal Major League Soccer season Monday.

A 1-1 draw with D.C. United on Saturday left Montreal with a 6-18-10 record and last overall in the 19-team league. It was a season that started badly and only got marginally better.

"There will be changes for sure, but I also believe in continuity," said coach Frank Klopas. "We’re not here to make a lot of changes."

The team that squeaked into the fifth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot despite a second-half collapse in 2013 carried its disjointed, error-prone play into this season by posting only one win in its first 11 matches.

The low points were seven straight losses in July and August and an 0-12-5 road record for the year. The positives were winning the Canadian Championship and reaching the quarter-finals of the CONCACAF Champions League.

As players were brought out three at a time to meet the media, a few veterans spoke of how the loss of defender Alessandro Nesta to retirement and moving captain Davy Arnaud to D.C. left the team short of leadership needed to get through the bad times.

"Alessandro and Davy leaving left a big void for sure," said goalkeeper Evan Bush. "Looking forward, that’s something that definitely needs to be addressed, as far as which guys will step up in leadership roles.

"A guy like (captain) Patrice Bernier, maybe it’s not his character to be the vocal one, but he leads in other ways. There are other guys who lead by example as well, but you also need guys that step up when things are going poorly and kind of right the ship in the locker room by saying things as well."

That the Impact had no one take charge may stem from the other problem — cliques.

The club has its Americans, a French-speaking Canadian contingent mostly from the team’s academy, Latin Americans and Italian stars Matteo Ferrari and Marco Di Vaio, who retired after the final regular-season game.

Most MLS clubs have players from around the world, but Montreal’s squad is especially diverse. The team has actively sought an international flavour and style of play rather than the more physical American game preferred by many of its opponents.

The challenge in that approach is maintaining unity.

"We’re always going to be a cosmopolitan team," said Bernier. "Players hang around with guys from their own country.

"In tough moments, it’s not easy because you’re always asking questions. And when you lose, people say you have cliques. The ethnicity of this team is what makes it what it is. Montreal’s always going to be compared to other clubs as a team with a lot of foreign backgrounds.

"It’s going to have to be worked on from the beginning so players coming in feel at home here and feel like they’re part of the project."

Last year’s Swiss coach, Marco Schallibaum, was big on team-building exercises, doing things not necessarily related to soccer away from the pitch. The Greek-American Klopas isn’t so much.

Canadian midfielder Issey Nakajima-Farran, acquired in midseason from Toronto FC, said it should be part of next season’s program.

"There’s a lot more diversity in this group of guys than in any group I’ve ever dealt with, which is 10 or 12 teams," the veteran said. "That’s definitely something we’ll have to work on for next year because what happens in the changing room and training field is what happens on the pitch.

"There was a lot of controversy throughout the season that we’ve got to address. We’re not as collective as we should be. Things like that take team activities, things outside the training ground."

Of course, the natural leader would be Ignacio Piatti, the designated player from Argentina who arrived in August on a three-year contract. Piatti made it clear from the start with his play that he’ll be one of the most gifted and entertaining players in MLS.

However, Piatti speaks Spanish and Italian but not English so locker-room speeches may be a problem. Same for midfielder Andres Romero, an Argentine who was named the team’s player of the year.

Romero, who was dreadful last season, was one of Montreal’s best and most consistent attacking players. He was also one of the few midfielders to stay healthy, unlike Justin Mapp, who had a strong start, or striker Di Vaio.

Bernier, a native of Brossard, Que., is one of four players whose contracts are up. The others are defenders Heath Pearce and Futty Danso and goalie Troy Perkins.

Klopas said he wants the 35-year-old Bernier back but added the players’ salaries will be part of the decision on which are signed.

He’d like to keep Perkins and Bush as a goaltending tandem but salary may come into play. That bodes poorly for Perkins, who was the starter for the first half of the season but then lost his job to Bush, who has the added bonus of being much less expensive.

"First off, I wouldn’t want to return to a place I’m not wanted," said Perkins. "I didn’t think I deserved the blame for what happened in the first part of the season and I think it was put on me."

Nakajima-Farran didn’t like being used sparingly either, although minutes were scarce with a glut of attacking midfielders.

"It’s always up to the coach and he’s always going to have his preferences, but with the season we had I felt there should have been a lot more experimenting," he said. "It was the same kind of lineup and it made it predictable what we were going to do, which a lot of teams also saw and took away the points from."

The central defence will be looked at closely. The Impact were caught short when Nelson Rivas did not shake off his chronic injury trouble and Spaniard Adrian Lopez suffered a second season-ending ailment in as many years.

That left Ferrari with inexperienced partners for most of the season, which is partly why the Impact repeatedly gave away points on late goals.

Help may come from Gege Soriola, a Nigerian signed late in the season who has yet to play a match, and Adam Straith of Victoria, who is currently without a club but trained with the Impact on Monday.

They also need to replace Di Vaio’s skill and experience at striker. Jack McInerney, acquired from Philadelphia early in the season, will be the first choice but Montreal will likely go outside to seek depth at that position.

Despite the losses, there were players who stepped up their game this season, including Romero.

Calum Mallace, all but forgotten his first two seasons, emerged as an imposing defensive midfielder and Dilly Duka, acquired in midseason from Chicago, proved to be a decent playmaker.

The focus at training camp in January will be preparing for a Champions League tie with powerful Pachuca of Mexico. But Montreal doesn’t want another weak regular season.

"I feel this was a year of transition," said Ferrari. "We changed the coach, we changed a lot of players.

"It’s difficult to find all the right things. After a while, we started to play better. Piatti helped us a lot. So next year we should have momentum to start better."

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