Montreal Impact went W11 L6 and D4 over its last 21 matches in MLS in 2018. Undoubtedly Play-off form, however winning only 3 and losing 10 of their first 13, gave them way too much ground to make up. The Impact finished 7th in the East, four points away from a Play-off place.
It was undoubtedly a struggle at first, but Remi Garde, did manage to get his message across in that first third of the season, otherwise the recovery which was there for all to see, would not have materialized.
The former Arsenal player and Olympique Lyonnais coach, ascended the MLS learning-curve quite quickly and implemented an effective plan in many ways alien to his footballing ideals, which underlines his tactical flexibility. It’s that prowess as one of the game’s deepest thinkers, which has formed an Impact squad in which the whole is undoubtedly more than the sum of its individual parts.
ARRIVALS AND DEPARTURES
There’s been a few key arrivals in the off-season. Maxi Urruti formerly of FC Dallas hopes to forge a dangerous attacking partnership with fellow-countryman and Impact favorite, Nacho Piatti. Without an effective main striker for all of last season, this is a significant development and much optimism prevails.
There’s also two other attacking arrivals in the form of Harry Novillo, a former player under Garde in Lyon, who has been most recently playing in Malaysian football, and interestingly the 21-year-old Nigerian, Orji Okwonkwo, a U17 World Cup Winner, on loan from Serie A outfit, Bologna.
Add to this central defender Zakaria Diallo, who joined the club in 2018, but never kicked a ball in anger after snapping an achilles tendon. Diallo’s newfound fitness makes his presence almost that of a new signing too, while the emergence and growing reputation of Academy product Mathieu Choiniere provides further attacking options. Expect to see this exciting prospect get decent game-time in 2019.
Of several departures, only really two were significant. Frenchcenter-back Rod Fanni, now 36 and right-sided forward Alejandro Silva, who returned to former club Olimpia (Paraguay) for a sizeable fee, each played key roles in last season’s impressive turnaround in fortunes.
FAMILARITY AND HARD WORK GENERATED IMPROVEMENT
As 2018 wore on Impact followers learned a lot about their side and the new coach, who frankly was dealt a weak hand upon arrival. Studious and calm, Garde’s patience and coolness at times did meet with frustration in those early weeks, however as things improved, gradually at first, then a little more spectacularly, there was a growing realization that playing matters were on the right track.
There had been a refusal to panic (although not on the part of the fans), perhaps not surprisingly in a man who has coached some of the world’s top stars, and eventually he found a way to play effectively with the players at his disposal. The hot potato had become a football, the players began to grasp the theory, and form was to improve dramatically. It’s a group with few stars, only really Piatti fits that mantra, but one where the collective is prepared to buckle down and has the ability to learn together.
It’s this ethic of teamwork allied to a harmonious environment and belief in the coaching staff that is likely to have Montreal’s football team punching above its weight in 2019. The nucleus of the squad which improved together last season has remained intact. Now a further year down the developmental line, you get the sense that better things lie ahead.
PRAGMATISM, PIATTI AND TRAVEL SICKNESS
If pre-season is a gauge, Montreal have become more adept at possessing the ball, pressing the opposition, and though they might not win too many awards for aesthetics – there is a certain pragmatism - the excitement will be in the form of Piatti running at panic-stricken opposition defenders, or the anticipation of a bulging net any time he gets one-on-one, close to goal.
It goes without saying of course, an injury to Piatti would be worrisome
A more concerning aspect for Impact fans however is their club’s notoriously poor road form. Only Minnesota United has a worse away-win percentage in the history of MLS. There’s going to be early opportunities to address this very problem with the first half-dozen matches all away from home. This stretch could make or break the season, but despite historical context, optimism is high. Nine points from those first six away games will be considered a success.
WHAT CAN BE EXPECTED?
The Impact would love another go at the CONCACAF Champions League, a competition they have not graced since reaching the final in 2015. To qualify they must first prevail in the Voyageurs Cup, perennially awarded to the Canadian Champions. This has been jealously guarded in the tight grasp of Toronto FC in recent seasons, another reason why the Impact will be keen wrest the trophy from its current incumbency.
There’s plenty for Montreal fans to be optimistic about in 2019. The team looks exceptionally conditioned and well-prepared for Opening Day, better than I’ve ever seen previously, and despite the run of road games early on, there’s a buoyancy in the camp and amongst supporters.
It would be a surprise to this normally cautiously-pessimistic Impact observer, if post-season football does not come to Quebec in late 2019 for the first time in three years.
PROJECTED STARTING LINE-UP
GK - Evan Bush
DEF - Bacary Sagna, Victor Cabrera, Zakaria Diallo, Daniel Lovitz
MF - Samuel Piette, Saphir Taider, Michael Azira, Ignacio Piatti
FOR - Harry Novello, Maxi Urruti