Right away you could sense it in his voice. When Dilly Duka took some time to walk me through Montreal’s historic 2015 Champions League run, the midfielder could barely hide his emotions. “It was really special. An emotionally and physically draining experience, yet extremely fulfilling”. Though the heartbreaking loss at Olympic Stadium in Montreal still stings, time brought perspective to the veteran player who accepted to give us some insight on the wears and tears of what is now an iconic phase of our Montreal Impact history.
Duka arrived in Montreal on July 29th 2014 in a swap that sent Sanna Nyassi to Chicago.
“In fact, I arrived the same week as Ignacio Piatti. We were sensing that a change was in the making at the club. We were at the bottom of the standings at that moment but near the end of the MLS season. We were playing well and starting to get good results against decent teams. We left for the off-season feeling good about ourselves and confident going into the Champions League knockout stage in February”.
And what a short off-season it was... A couple of weeks prior to the first game against Pachuca, pre-season camp started for the Montrealers, in Mexico. On the menu: adapting to the dizzying altitude of Estadio Hidalgo and cement a group that had eleven new players.
“It wasn’t an easy period. We were, for a long time, away from home. On the flipside, we bonded fast and strong as a team”.
At Estadio Hidalgo in the first leg of the quarter-final, a two goal lead provided by Duka himself was cancelled out by a comeback by Pachuca, setting up a grudge return leg in Montreal. Two weeks later, in a packed Olympic Stadium, Cameron Porter became an instant club legend.
“Losing 1-0 in the dying minutes of the game, everyone wanted the ball. Nacho was asking for it, I was asking for it. Then Callum (Mallace) just put his head down and found Porter. It was just crazy, the best moment I had on a soccer pitch without a doubt”. Montreal was going through to the semi-finals against Alajualense of Costa Rica.
When asked if tactical preparation was any different against the Central-American teams, Duka had an interesting answer: “No. We had instructions from the coaching staff on certain opposition players, but nothing on team tactics. We were an experienced and very explosive team. We had our opponents worrying about us more than we were worrying about them.”
This insight was proven in Montreal in the first leg of the semi-final as they dominated early and were leading 2-0 after 15 minutes of play. Impact eventually won the fixture on away goals rule (4-4) to set up a two leg final against Club America.
The idea of walking onto Estadio Azteca to face one of Mexico’s most storied clubs might have seemed daunting, but confidence was running high in the Montreal ranks.
“We didn’t talk much to be honest. Maybe Patrice (Bernier) or Laurent Ciman would speak up once in a while but we were much more about that action. We were all experienced players so we knew what we had to do to win. If you look at how it was, at that moment we didn’t have many youngsters in the group.”
A surprising 1-1 tie in Mexico brought immense hope to our city, so much so that two weeks later, Montreal only needed a 0-0 draw to become the first MLS club to win the Concacaf Champions League. For the occasion, 61,004 hopefuls jammed inside Olympic Stadium.
After taking a early 1-0 lead, Montreal stood tall until half-time, setting up a frantic second half.
“We were sitting in the dressing room at half-time absolutely knackered. The toll of pre-season and the non-stop traveling seemed to finally hit home. Everyone was completely out of gas.”
So it showed in the second half, as the tremendous resolve of the Montrealers was finally broken, surrendering four goals to eventually lose. As the Impact players left the field with their heads down, an admiring crowd rose to give their team a standing ovation. A majority of fans left with the sense of satisfaction as very few imagined their club getting to the final in the first place.
This feeling was not shared in the dressing room though: “We were devastated. We genuinely thought we were going to win. It was obvious that we were facing one of Club America’s best ever squads, still we were all expecting the cup. I really think the ultimate game-breaker for us was the fatigue of a tough pre-season and the countless hours of traveling. We would leave Mexico to play in the USA, then fly back to Montreal, only to fly back to Central-America then back to the USA. This took a toll on us and I really think that being as fit as Club America, we would have won the Champions League.”
That year, Duka featured in the squad who lost in the Eastern conference semi-final against the Columbus Crew. Through the dismissal of Frank Klopas during the season and the drama of the arrival of Didier Drogba, Dilly’s departure from the club perhaps didn’t make as much noise as it should have.
“I was interested in trying out in Europe. I even had offers in Belgium and Greece. Unfortunately, agent terms didn’t work out, so team contract terms never progressed. When I saw Montreal was ready to move on it helped me make my decision. I really liked my time here and left in excellent terms with everyone.”
Dilly did eventually get a short taste of Europe as he had a thirteen game stint in Albania’s first division, where he won the championship in 2019.
Asked about being currently a free-agent, the man who is now a father of three, insists that his next club has to be a fit for him but also for his family. Oh but there is one exception: “I see Patrice Bernier is involved with the first team. He was a great leader. I’m a free player, since September, and if Patrice and the staff needed any veteran help, I’d easily be interested in coming on trial.”