MONTREAL—The mood at Stade Saputo was overwhelmingly gloomy this week, as the Montreal Impact held a press conference which saw coach Frank Klopas, vice president Richard Legendre and most of the Impact’s roster offer their appraisal of the 2014 Major League Soccer season.
To sum it all up, the year’s looked something like this: Montreal finished in last place in MLS with a record of 6-18-10; it scored 38 goals and conceded 58—among the worst offensive and defensive records in the league—and never won a game on the road.
The silver lining for the Impact was the fact that they managed to win the Canadian Club Championship and reach the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League, which isn’t a small feat. But the real measure of a team’s quality is how it’s able to perform over an entire season in the league, and in that respect, the Impact were poor, showing significant fragility and lacking in many areas.
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Though there were some improvements in the team’s play during the second half of the season, Klopas admitted that Montreal was still “not good enough.” So what happened? Why did the Impact go from fifth place in the Eastern Conference and a berth in the MLS playoffs in 2013 to dead last in 2014?
Klopas didn’t offer a clear answer, explaining that evaluations still needed to be made (which would be rather troubling if true, given that the season was essentially over months ago), but he did accept the blame for the team’s dismal year, asserting that it had underperformed.
Veteran players Marco Di Vaio, Patrice Bernier and Matteo Ferrari, on the other hand, all agreed that the team badly missed the leadership and presence of former captain Davy Arnaud and world renowned defender Alessandro Nesta, who both left the team in the last off-season.
With the lack of reinforcements during the winter transfer window and the significant bolstering of the teams which had previously finished lower in the standings, the Impact always looked destined to take a step back. Just about every MLS reporter, including this correspondent, that offered their predictions for the 2014 season had Montreal finishing at the very bottom of the standings, or at least very close to the bottom.
The Impact players clearly shared this concern, especially because the dramatic slump they had endured at the end of the 2013 campaign clearly indicated that help was needed.
Ferrari raised this issue as early as January during pre-season training camp. “Right now, when I think about last year’s team, I think we’re a little bit—how can I say—not as good as before,” Ferrari said. “We lost key players. We haven’t replaced anybody until now.”
With an incomplete squad and very low morale, the Impact got the season off to a terrible start, winning only one of their first 11 games. After an emphatic 3-0 home loss to Kansas City in May, Impact president Joey Saputo promised change on his twitter account.
“Our fans deserve better,” Saputo said. “Changes will be coming, guaranteed.”
What ensued was a frantic attempt on the part of sporting director Nick De Santis to make up for his inaction in the off-season, and a host of changes were made to the roster. However, the team continued to struggle and De Santis was eventually relieved of his duties at the end of July—he was later assigned a new role, as the club’s Director of International and Business Development.
Roster handling aside, De Santis’ hiring of Klopas as coach—De Santis’ fourth coaching appointment in four seasons—also deserves serious scrutiny.
For starters, it took Klopas months to find a stable starting lineup and create balance between defence and attack. And then many of his tactical choices and in-game substitutions were very questionable.
He also struggled in man management, poisoning the air inside the locker room with many of his decisions. Most notable was benching captain Patrice Bernier at the start of the year, and then benching one of his assistant captains, goalkeeper Troy Perkins, following a glaring mistake committed at the end of September. Though it’s true that second choice goalkeeper Evan Bush deserved a shot as a starter, to relegate Perkins to the sidelines immediately after a gaffe wasn’t great timing.
Perkins, whose contract expires at the end of the current season, expressed his frustration at how he was treated by the team.
“I wouldn’t want to return to a place I’m not wanted. I don’t think I deserved the blame for what happened in the first half of the season, and I think it was put on me,” Perkins said.
“And you know that’s the way it is in this business, but I think personally there were good moments for me and a few games where I thought I could have done better and we got different results. But at the end of the day I can’t hold my hand up and say it was me who put us in this situation.”
He added: “I don’t know [if the club wants me] to be honest with you. It’s one of those things where one day they say yes, another day they’re like I don’t know.”
Perkins’ situation aggravated what had already become a divided and disgruntled locker room.
As another example of player discontent, midfielder Issey Nakajima-Farran complained about not getting enough playing time after being traded from Toronto FC for Collen Warner in May.
“I’m not too familiar with how things work here, but being traded you expect to play more, and to be honest, I pretty much got binned; to be binned liked that was pretty disappointing,” the winger said.
He also admitted to the lack of unity inside the team.
“I think there’s a lot more diversity in this group of guys than any other group of guys I’ve ever been with, which is 12 teams. Definitely that’s something we have to work on for next year, because what happens in the changing room, happens in the pitch; I think there was a lot of controversy throughout the whole season that we got to work on and address,” he said.
The main defect with Klopas’ man management ability is that he doesn’t seem to have a very amiable personality. He doesn’t appear to exude a whole lot of confidence or ever feel especially candid either. Speaking about next season, Klopas says he’s an “optimistic person”—and that might very well be true—but his words carry little conviction. And that’s concerning, given that he’s supposed to be the leader of this club. Klopas’s predecessors Jesse Marsch and Marco Schallibaum had much stronger personalities and so did their teams.
Asked by one journalist why he should return next year after the Impact had such a terrible season, one which included a 15 percent decline in ticket sales, Klopas pointed to his record as a technical director and coach in Chicago (which in reality was less than stellar) and then, in the same breath, admitted he never really wanted to get into coaching in the first place.
Klopas’s second line of defence was the argument that if the Impact are going to “build something” they need continuity. And this is the only reason why Klopas would be kept in charge for next year. The Impact don’t want to fire a third coach after only three seasons in MLS, for it would reflect badly on De Santis and the club as a whole. But is that a good enough reason to keep Klopas?
De Santis has firmly defended his coach this season, pointing out the supposed high level of detail and preparation in the 48-year-old’s training session. Yet the Impact didn’t score a single goal on a set piece all season—and that means throw ins, penalties, free kicks and 147 corner kicks. Zero. No goals. No sign of elaborate training ground preparation anywhere.
Funny enough, in Bernier’s only game for Canada this year he set up a goal against Jamaica from a corner kick, with a perfect delivery to David Edgar. It was clearly a set play: meaning one that was prepared in advance (letting Di Vaio whip a ball wherever he feels like doesn’t qualify).
Fortunately for Klopas, Saputo has promised him one more season. The biggest challenge will be to rebuild the squad and there are a lot of positions that need to be addressed. Di Vaio’s departure especially, will leave big shoes to fill, though at least the Impact will be able to count on Ignacio Piatti from the beginning of the season. The Argentine DP has been terrific since coming over from San Lorenzo in August.
Klopas will certainly be under pressure to deliver results quickly and there isn’t a whole lot of time to prepare for February’s Champions League quarterfinal matchup with Pachuca. For a team that hasn’t won a single game away from home in 2014, to have to go to Mexico to open next year’s campaign is a daunting proposition, to say the least.
It’s not all gloom and doom at the Impact, however, as Saputo continues to heavily invest in the club.
Next season the Impact will have a brand new training facility of their own, a massive upgrade over the aging Claude Robillard Sports Complex. They’ll have a team in the USL Pro League, which will offer a chance to the younger academy players to get more playing time. The expansion of the club’s academy system that can now accommodate players as young as seven years old, and Saputo’s joint purchase of Italian club Bologna FC are very exciting prospects for the future of the Impact and soccer in Quebec as well.
Bubbly Spanish midfielder Gorka Larrea, who hopes to return next season, had glowing reviews of the club.
“They have very interesting ideas,” he said. “They just need time.”
That may be so. But meanwhile results on the field paint a discouraging picture.
Nick Sabetti is a Montreal-based writer. Follow him on Twitter