MONTREAL — Other than practice having to end early because too much snow had accumulated on the dangerously fragile roof of the old, decrepit Olympic Stadium, the Montreal Impact’s first day of training camp went very smoothly.
There wasn’t the usual hectic pace—several new players or new members of the coaching staff needing to be showed around the facilities and introduced to teammates and media—that we’ve grown so accustomed to over the years in the Impact’s opening training sessions.
Instead, everything felt very familiar. Marco Donadel, the first player that took to the field, even gave the much-maligned turf of the Big O an amusing kiss, reminiscent of the scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life” where James Stewart, so happy to be home, enthusiastically kisses a broken stair knob.
In some way, it almost feels as if last season never ended. It was, after all, only a little less than two months ago that it did end, making this past off-season the shortest in club history.
It was also, by far, the Impact’s quietest off-season on the player movement front. The only new recruits present at training on Tuesday were former New York Red Bulls fullback Chris Duvall, acquired in a trade with Minnesota United FC in December, and 6-foot-5 forward Nick DePuy, the team’s 2017 first-round draft pick. Another draft pick, midfielder Shamit Shome, is currently away with Canada’s under-20 side.
Despite the lack of transfer activity, it was still a busy winter for the Impact. Coming off its best season in MLS, Montreal’s top priority wasn’t to sign new players, but rather keeping the important ones they already had. The club re-signed speedster Dominic Oduro and captain Patrice Bernier, and it made sure playmaker Ignacio Piatti and defender Ambroise Oyongo stayed put, despite strong interest from elsewhere—and quite a lot of work went into making that happen.
The same starting 11 that helped the Impact reach the Eastern Conference final just two months ago, as well as the same coaching staff led by Mauro Biello, are back; and for a team that has struggled so much with achieving continuity, that’s a huge accomplishment.
“In the past, players didn’t necessarily want to stay here or we didn’t keep them,” Bernier told the assembled media. “Now, the cycle is changing a bit. Guys are wanting to say. The plan of the club is structured now. You’re looking at the same team now for the last two, three years. At least some of the core players.”
A free agent after two very good seasons, and not lacking in destinations to choose from, Oduro was one player who seemed destined to leave. But the speedy Ghanaian said he’s found a home here in Montreal, which is not something you often here.
“I love this team, I love this city and I wanted to stay,” he said.
Another factor that has brought many of the players back is the feeling that there’s still unfinished business. They came so close to reaching MLS Cup for the first time last year and there’s still a confidence that, with a few added reinforcements over the course of the season—designated player Blerim Dzemaili is scheduled to arrive in July—this group has what it takes to go one step further.
“We felt that we were close last year; that we were one step away from getting to the final,” Biello said “And I think that’s where the motivation is to get back to the final.”
The Impact should also be able to count on the return of Andres Romero, who missed all of last season due to an ACL tear he suffered at the end of 2015. The Argentinian midfielder feels much like a new signing.
“He was our MVP the year before he got injured,” Biello stated. “He’s a guy who can play out wide; who can play in the middle, play forward. I love the fact that he’s flexible. He’s a hard worker. He fits the profile of what we want from our offensive players so it’s about getting his rhythm back. We’re hoping that he’ll be back for the start of the year.”
The sense one gets from the Impact’s first day at training camp is that this is a stronger team compared to past years. There’s no illusion of where the side is at; that it’s going to be a difficult season and a fight to make the playoffs—especially with an ambitious-looking expansion club in Atlanta United FC joining the Eastern Conference.
The players understand that the Impact still need another piece or two ahead of the start of the regular season. But they also get there’s plenty of time to make things right should the campaign not get off to the best of starts.
“MLS is a long season; making the playoffs is not easy, but we have the experience,” Bernier said. “If we do get to the playoffs, we also have to experience to know what it takes to go as far as possible.”
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