MONTREAL — The Montreal Impact are on the verge of making history, needing only a draw on Wednesday against Toronto FC at BMO Field to reach the MLS Cup final for the first time, where they would face the Seattle Sounders.
Although the Impact would probably prefer to retain the underdog status that they’ve enjoyed since the beginning of the playoffs, there’s plenty of reason to believe that they’re the favourites going into this second leg of the Eastern Conference finals. For starters, they’ve been excellent in the post-season thus far, winning all four games, of which two were on the road at D.C United and New York Red Bulls, difficult places to win. And with the Impact entering this return match with a one-goal advantage, they’ll be able to play to their strengths, which is defend and counter.
The Impact’s playoff run has come as a surprise to many and might be considered a fluke by some, but it’s not; not if the success of the club over the past two years is considered. This is just about the same Montreal side that at the beginning of last season went on an exceptional run to the CONCACAF Champions League final, becoming only the second MLS side to do so, and that at the end of last year brilliantly pushed their way up to third in the East and reached the Conference semis, losing out to the Columbus Crew, the eventual finalists, by a goal in extra time.
Most of the reasons that explain the Impact’s success over the past two seasons and in these playoffs in particular have already been addressed—the heroics of Ignacio Piatti, the coaching of Mauro Biello are among the big ones—but one person who has yet to really be mentioned, and who has contributed greatly, is Nick De Santis, the Impact’s Vice President of International Relations and Technical Development.
The 49-year-old Montreal native is after all the one who put much of this Impact team together in the first place, although in the past things weren’t always so rosy.
As the Impact’s sporting director from 2011 to 2014, De Santis received a lot of criticism, and perhaps none more so than from this correspondent. Much of the criticism during his tenure was deserved. For the Impact’s first three seasons in Major League Soccer, which were under his watch, the team lacked stability. There was a new coach every year and there didn’t seem to be a clear sense of direction.
Even in 2013, when the Impact managed to make the playoffs for the first time, the way they did so was far from convincing. After winning only one of their last eight games, they clinched their place on the very last day of the regular season, by which time there was infighting inside the locker room. In the first round of the playoffs the Houston Dynamo easily beat them 3-0.
The subsequent campaign in 2014 was the worst of all, and ultimately cost De Santis his job, as the Impact finished last in MLS, winning only six of their games. By the end of July, club president Joey Saputo relieved De Santis of his duties.
De Santis, who’s been with the Impact since the team’s inception in 1992, serving as a player for ten years and a coach for six before taking on the technical direction of the club, wasn’t just going to leave, however. Like Biello, who’s also been part of the club since day one, the names Montreal Impact and De Santis have always gone hand in hand.
At the press conference announcing De Santis’ firing, Saputo assured that De Santis would always have a role at the Impact–except now he would no longer be involved in the technical side of things, but would have an exclusively administrative role. Although a difficult decision to accept, De Santis admitted at the time that he needed to take responsibility for the Impact’s difficult situation.
Three days later, in the team’s next home game at Stade Saputo, De Santis was right back in his usual spot in the Impact’s technical box, raising the question of whether anything had changed.
In September, De Santis was named the Director of International Business Development, but he continued to take part in technical functions at the club, such as scouting. And his title was eventually changed to Vice President, International Relations and Technical Development, to reflect the fact that he would still have a say in technical matters.
In his new role, it’s true that De Santis hasn’t had the same duties as he did as sporting director, which involved overseeing every aspect of the club’s technical structure. However, working as an adviser to technical director Adam Braz and Biello, and tasked with much of the club’s scouting efforts and with developing relationships abroad, his influence has still been considerable.
In a press conference last fall, Richard Legendre, the Impact’s Vice President of Soccer Operations, was questioned about De Santis’ continued involvement in the technical aspects of the club, despite his past failings and Saputo saying that he would no longer be involved. Legendre insisted that things had changed and that De Santis’ technical input was still valuable.
He wasn’t wrong.
Following the debacle of 2014, De Santis went on to play a major role in helping rebuild the Impact through the acquisitions of players who have become key figures, such as Piatti, Laurent Ciman, Marco Donadel and Victor Cabrera, among others. He also played an important part in the discussions to bring Didier Drogba to Montreal, as well as Matteo Mancosu earlier this year, who’s turned into one of the best signings of the season in MLS. To be sure, there have been mistakes, like the signing of young designated player Lucas Ontivero from Galatasaray, but the good moves have well outnumbered the bad.
There are always going to be mistakes and the Impact had plenty of growing pains in their first years in MLS, but they’re certainly in a much stronger and more stable position now. That they’re not the kind of club that will scurry around North America in search of a coach or a technical director whenever they need one, preferring to hire from the inside, might not be the worst avenue. As it currently stands, the North American soccer landscape isn’t overflowing with brilliant soccer minds that have experience running clubs; so focusing on developing your own people, who have a certain loyalty, might be the smartest approach—Biello, who after two seasons in charge already looks like one of the better coaches in MLS, is a case in point. Moreover, you simply can’t buy the kind of passion and commitment that someone like De Santis can bring to the table. At the same time, it probably wouldn’t be wise for the Impact to close themselves off completely from outside talent, and if they want their brand to grow in Montreal and elsewhere, at some point the club needs to be associated with more than just a few faces, as important as they may be.
But for the growth of the game in Canada, it’s also fundamental that Canadians are given opportunities in important club positions and that they’re also given time to grow in them, which invariably means learning from mistakes. For as much as it’s great that TFC are finding success in MLS and are poised to become a power in the East, it’s unfortunate that they don’t have Canadians in key technical positions in as much the same way that Montreal does.
The Impact like to take pride in being able to find success with their own people and they’re certainly getting that. In the away section at BMO Field on Wednesday, there won’t be any Impact fans holding up banners with "architect of a disaster" written on them like there used to be a few years ago when De Santis was fully in charge. On the contrary, praise is most certainly due in his direction. For however the game ends, what the Impact have accomplished over the past two seasons has been remarkable and his role in that success is beyond doubt.
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