So finally April 13 arrives … It’s been a long time coming. One hundred and seventy-three days to be exact, since Stade Saputo last staged a match, IMFC putting their old rivals from Toronto to the sword. The famous North Star Bell tolled twice that afternoon, hailing the efforts of Nacho Piatti, the conjurer of the match-winning brace.
But the Argentine, widely regarded as Montreal’s most dangerous player looks set to miss the return home. A knee injury picked up three weeks ago in Orlando, where he scored twice, looks like putting paid to his chances.
Opening Day casts me back in memory to sunny August afternoons, mostly spent at The Oval, Belfast, or some small Irish League stadium, but that was only when I couldn’t afford the trip to Old Trafford, the other venue that holds, mostly happy, opening day memories for this writer.
The smell of freshly cut grass, the mild breeze tempering the sun, jackets redundant in the fresh, end of summer, Irish air. It was heaven. Football heaven. Always the healthy scent of winter-green rub wafting from the away-team changing-room window at Belfast’s Glentoran, and a less inviting aroma drifting from a rickety old burger-van, commanded by a really old guy called, Ned.
The 1450 train to Bangor would groan past the unreserved terracing and you’d know there was only ten mins to kick-off. Soon twenty-two gladiators would do battle on the purest of green-baize surfaces. Perhaps old Billy Crawford was the finest grounds-man that ever lived.
The sun would bring out the best in the old stadium; it never ceased to amaze me how well it complemented a lick of paint, in making the old place look, well, much less elderly.
But that was then, and this is now. Season openers still feel funny in March, home openers even more weird in April, when back home, the Fat Lady of Europe’s leagues is clearing her throat and preparing her song-sheet …
But at least this year, there’s no drab old Stade Olympique, the venue that’s hosted every one of 7 previous IMFC home openers. We’re in the airy confines of the much more pleasant outside arena next door. At least to me, it will look like the proper opening day of my relative youth, albeit in Quebec-spring and not British-summer.
For Montrealers and a little beyond, Stade Saputo is the place to be tomorrow despite its missing Argentine hero. A nice 13 degree, sunny day is forecast. Shame on anyone with an inkling of love for sport in this city not to be there. Great setting, improving team and The Beautiful Game. What’s not to like? Just get out there and support your local football team. OK, even call it soccer, if you prefer! Who cares? Just get out there!
The Impact has only ever lost one MLS home-opener, halving the other six, between wins and draws. Toronto have been beaten twice, Seattle has avoided defeat as many times, and in its best home-opening performance to date, the Red Bulls were toyed with and tamed by the blue/black matador to the tune of 3-0 (2016).
Columbus on Saturday represents quality opposition. They sit atop the early Eastern Conference with 13 points from 6 matches (4-1-1), two ahead of DC United and 5 ahead of Montreal. Bench-marking, considering only points won and games played however, may betray. IMFC has yet to play at home, Crew has played only two games on the road, one which was lost convincingly (0-3) at Philadelphia.
A Montreal victory tomorrow will paint a much different picture than the current standings provide. And there’s plenty of reason for optimism. As well as that solid, home, opening-day record, Montreal is 5-2-1 against Columbus at home in MLS Regular Season-play.
Zach Brault-Guillard’s performance in DC on Tuesday night has given coach, Remi Garde something to think about. Does he recall veteran Bacary Sagna, or go again with the impressive youngster? The defense may also see the return of Jukka Raitala against his old club, although Victor Cabrera performed admirably in the US capital, so may retain his spot.
Elsewhere expect Harry Novillo, Orji Okwonkwo, Michael Azira and Maxi Urruti, all to return to the starting line-up, with Novillo likely to deputize in the hole left by Piatti’s absence.
Crew will be trying to emulate their success in 2017, when Justin Meram’s stoppage time winner punctuated the consistency of their last six Montreal visits, which otherwise resulted only in defeats.
Meram remains, and there’s plenty of other talent in the Ohio outfit. US-international Gyasi Zardes has top-scored with 3 this season and Federico Higuain, the smoothest play-maker in MLS, at 34, continues to purr in midfield. Their supporting cast, includes ‘keeper, Zack Steffen, Manchester City-bound in July, Brazilian, Artur, another likely starter in midfield and Will Trapp, the local-boy-done-good, who captains the side. 61 times-capped Ghanian, Jonathan Mensah will wear #4 and serves as the lynchpin in defence.
The Crew will be delighted to leave Stade Saputo with a point, but Montreal expects, and the Impact XI will be in no mood to send their fans home with anything less than three points to savor, at the expense of a key Conference rival.
IMFC –Bush – Sagna, Cabrera, Diallo, Lovitz – Piette, Azira, Taider – Okwonkwo, Urruti, Novillo.
CREW –Steffen – Jimenez, Mensah, Williams, Francis – Artur, Trapp, Higuain – Pedro Santos, Zardes, Robinho.
Referee: Armando Villareal
Asst Ref: Jason White, Gianni Facchini
4thOfficial: Fotis Bazakos