It all comes down to this moment. Wednesday, April 29th is a day that will catapult l'Impact de Montréal into North American soccer history, or see us forgotten as another pretender. The Impact will play in front of more than 59,000 fans at Stade Olympique, easily the most iconic stadium in Canada, in what is no less than the biggest soccer match on Canadian soil in a generation. But if I had told you that we would be in the Champions League finals, after an historic draw at Estadio Azteca against Club America exactly one year ago, you would have laughed. But a lot changes in a year, and here we are.The road here has not been for the faint of heart. It has been a long road to this moment, and it has been paved with injuries, controversial calls, roster changes and fan insurrection. Without a doubt, it has been the best and worst year for l'Impact de Montréal. So sit back, grab a cup of coffee, and relive the road to the Champions League finals.
Step 1: Amway Canada Cup
Our road has been long, and it began in the unlikeliest of soccer markets: Edmonton.
Every country in CONCACAF has its own qualification process. In Canada, we play our 5 professional clubs off each other in the Amway Canadian Championship to decide a victor. That winner hoists the Voyageurs Cup, and earns a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League; playing with the best clubs in North America. Our road began with the Voyageurs Cup, a trophy named after the original inhabitants of Montréal, that almost slipped through our grasp.
Semi-Finals - Edmonton F.C.
The Voyageurs Cup Semi-Finals began in Edmonton in front of a crowd of less than 1,500 people. The NASL side, Edmonton F.C., had defeated the Ottawa Fury in a home and away series for the right to play the Impact. Montréal, as defending champions, had the honour (or the advantage) of playing Edmonton. Montréal lost the first match 2-1. It was humiliating, yet unsurprising. Edmonton did not win, Montréal lost, and they lost hard. We had been having what could charitably be described as a run of back luck in the MLS, and it carried over to the Voyageurs Cup that night. When the series returned to Montréal a week later, in front of 13,000 fans at Stade Saputo, l'Impact won 4-2. Two penalty shots were awarded controversially, one to each side, where many fans - especially in Edmonton and Toronto - felt that Montréal had fouled their way into the Voyageurs Cup finals. Whatever your opinion, the Impact were through to the finals - and were on the road to making history. They had learned their lesson, and from here until the match against Alajuelense, they would not lose a single match in tournament play.
Finals - Toronto F.C.
In the battle of the Voyaguers Cup against Toronto F.C., Montréal would stare down talent like Jermaine Defoe and Michael Bradley, and still emerge victorious. It is fair to say that Toronto did not take the tournament seriously. It is also fair to say that they were outplayed mightily by the Impact. The first leg ended in a draw of 1-1, and the second leg an Impact victory of 1-0. Through all odds, Montréal had won its second consecutive Voyaguers Cup, and earned itself a place in the Champions League representing Canada. The Voyageurs Cup would once again rest in Stade Saputo, and Montréal would again try to advance in the Champions League.
Step 2: Champions League Group Stage
Much like the UEFA Champions League, the CONCACAF Champions League starts with a group stage, with three teams per group. Montréal would wind up being drawn in the same group as C.D. FAS, a fast team from soccer crazed El Salvador, and the New York Red Bulls, an MLS rival that was dominating league play in a tight play-off race for Eastern conference champion.
Group Stage - C.D. FAS
The Champions League group stage began in earnest on an August day against a team nobody in Montréal had ever heard of, C.D. FAS of El Salvador. Montréal broke late, and won the match 1-0, to the relief of fans. In the second leg, Montréal would summon all their inner strength and defeat the Salvadorian side 3-2, stunning the local crowd which expected a victory. It was the first time the Impact had won a match on Central American soil, a club record. It would not be the last time in this campaign that the Impact would win against a Central American side, and nowhere near the last time they would make history.
Group Stage - New York Red Bulls
The Impact then moved on to playing the other team in their Champions League group, the New York Red Bulls, led by French goal scoring legend Thierry Henry. In late September the Impact blanked the Red Bulls 1-0, and then drew them 1-1 in October. The attendance in New York was poor, and even the Impact played for only 15,000 people. Both games meant that the New York Red Bulls were eliminated from CCL play, but they would go on to the final four of league play in the MLS. The Impact would finish last in MLS, and first in their Champions League group.
The three wins and a draw in the Champions League group stage gave the Impact 10 points, and a berth in the quarter-finals, a place they had not been since 2009. It would be one of the only highlights of their season as 2014 drew to a close.
Quarter-Finals C.D. Pachuca
Four months had passed since the Impact moved on from the group stage of the Champions League, as the Impact assembled in Stade Olympique for pre-season. New recruits, new staff and a new mentality were on display as the Impact prepared mentally and physically for the Champions League match against C.D. Pachuca, a Mexican club with a good record in Liga MX. From the beginning it became evident that the club would focus on Champions League play over MLS. They flew down to Mexico two weeks before the match to acclimatize to the altitude and heat. Whatever they did in training worked; they tied Pachuca 2-2 in an historic match that set the tone for the 2015 CCL campaign. 38,000 fans showed up at Stade Olympique to see the Impact's newest forward, Cameron Porter, perform a miracle and draw Pachuca 1-1, which would send Montréal into the semi-finals. Within a week, Cameron Porter had become a local celebrity featured all over the media. The mood in Montréal was changing, people suddenly started asking "can we actually win this thing?" They had no idea how far we would go - but the Impact were ready to show them.
Semi-Finals - L.D. Alajuelense
They would have their ambitions realized in leg 1 of the semi-finals against Alajuelense, the Costa Rican speedsters who eliminated D.C. United only 3 weeks before, when the Impact beat them 2-0 at Stade Olympique in front of 33,000 Montréalais. The second match in Costa Rica was hostile, fast and full metal CONCACAF. They would go on to lose in Costa Rica 4-2, but would advance anyway on the away goals rule, as the aggregate score was tied 4-4. The Impact had all manner of debris thrown at them in Costa Rica, including coins and shoes, and several Impact players were the target of racist chants. Since they advanced to the finals, those chants and taunts would only embolden the underdog Impact and prepare them for their biggest match yet.
Step 3: Champions League Finals (Club América)
Leg 1: Estadio Azteca
Have you ever been so nervously excited for a match before? I would imagine this is how fans feel when they watch their national team walk out onto the pitch at the World Cup. I'm Canadian, I wouldn't know about World Cup glory, but I do know about Champions League anticipation. I felt it in the moments leading up to the match, I saw it manifest itself through social media. Montréal Mania had finally come back. All the experts agreed: we would lose by a margin of several goals. "The Impact are last in MLS, they can't succeed!" Bookies were giving Montréal a 19% chance to draw or win - but when has Montréal ever cared about the odds? When I saw Laurent Ciman and Ignacio Piatti walk onto the pitch I recognized the same grim determination I saw in Patrice Bernier against Toronto, in Evan Bush against Edmonton, in Hassoun Camara against New York. We were here to win, come Hell or high water. Montréal came close too, holding a 1-0 lead for 89 minutes against the best club in the federation, settling for a 1-1 draw. It is a result that will send Impact fans back home into a frenzy, and re-ignite the passion of a city that for too long has lived with only hockey as an outlet.
Leg 2: Stade Olympique
Already 59,020 tickets are sold for Wednesday's match, and many more will crowd bars, basements and patios around Montréal, Québec and as far away as France, Australia and the UK to watch this teams historic and unexpected Cinderella run.
This tournament, in only one year, has taken the Impact and its fans to 5 countries, and brought this club back from the brink. It is safe to say that we will not be playing in front of 1,500 fans in Edmonton anymore. The Impact are an international brand. We have buzz again. We earn results against the best clubs on the continent.
So when the Impact walk onto the pitch on those hallowed grounds in East Montréal Wednesday night, do us a favour and let this team know you're pulling for them. We want this win, and we appreciate their effort to bring prestige and international recognition to our little slice of la Francophonie.
The road to this last game has been long, the journey filled with moments of glory and moments of catastrophe. Through it all, I've fallen back into fandom with a team that had underperformed and underwhelmed since September 2013. This team has reminded me that there is something about soccer, about Montréal and about the very idea of the Impact, an international sporting franchise in the heart of French Canada, that is worth cheering for. This journey has reminded us to keep our eyes on the road ahead.
Marquons l'histoire. Allez Montréal.