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Henry Quick to Accept Responsibility...

... but it’s not quite as simple as that....

Montreal Impact v Toronto FC - MLS Is Back Tournament
Thierry Henry (right) geeing up some of his troops during the MLS-is-Back tournament, in July
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

“It was my fault. Maybe we should have stayed [in New York] and trained,” said Thierry Henry in the wake of the latest reverse suffered by his side, their 11th of a truncated season and 9th in the last 14 games.

“I wanted to have faith in my guys and think about the mental aspect. But it’s my fault, no problem.”

Of course it’s not quite as simple as that. The head coach’s words while admirably designed more to accept responsibility and deflect criticism in any direction other than towards his troops, don’t really tell the tale.

It’s been a wretched year for football by anybody’s standards. That we’ve had anything at all to watch, it’s down to everyone’s credit. It’s not been a real season, and for sure that’s been the saving grace for Impact fans. Or at least it should be.

Of course everyone must re-adjust and reach for the amended targets set in the present. But given where the Impact has been as a club, the future is more important than what happens in a season, where achievement will inevitably be devalued.

The record books will ensure it’s remembered as the asterisk season for evermore.

Would Impact fans have loved their team to round it off by winning MLS Cup? Yes, of course, but winning the top prize in north American soccer would certainly be more lauded and a greater achievement in a proper season. The Impact may never get there, granted, but I’m simply making a point!

Transition
Consequently, it’s the perfect year for transition, and putting a solid foundation in place in preparation for 2021 and beyond. Write 2020 off! It’s been a horrible year anyhow.

Let’s add some perspective. The Montreal Impact which Thierry Henry inherited (and Olivier Renard for that matter) was NOT a play-off squad. They missed out by 11 points in 2017 and by 4 in each of the following two seasons. In the first two of those seasons 6 play-off spots from an 11-team Conference were up for grabs and last season 7/12.

Now there’s 10 from 14, though given all the challenges which have befallen the game and the disadvantages incurred by Canadian clubs in MLS, the perceived benefit of an increased number of play-off spots has been negated.

Of course the current coach and squad will be trying all within their collective power to make play-off football, but is it really the most important thing? What if they don’t make it?

FBL-CAN-MLS-MONTREAL-HENRY
Olivier Renard (left) and Thierry Henry (centre) - a double act with the potential to lead IMFC to post-season football in 2021 and beyond?
Photo by SEBASTIEN ST-JEAN/AFP via Getty Images

This may not go down too well with many fans, but who cares this year... provided solid foundations can be laid for 2021?

Next year and the one after have to be the seasons Henry and Renard are judged on. It doesn’t mean they have to win MLS in 2021, but the minimum target must be taking what will have become increasingly THEIR TEAM into the play-offs.

It’s not a case of ‘Always Next Year’, either, as some will suggest. There have been positive signs, and a more business-like feel about how Montreal goes about it’s business since Renard’s arrival (possibly the Piatti episode apart).

In MLS it can be as difficult to off-load players no longer required, as get the right replacements in. And often you must deal with the offload first to make room. It’s really not like any other league on the planet in this respect. Then of course there’s salary-cap to worry about.

But we’ve seen some issues dealt with quickly, quietly and efficiently as opportunities have arisen already, with Evan Bush’s move to Vancouver and Saphir Taider’s to Al-Ain freeing up significant salary cap.

Renard has also overseen the additions of Romell Quioto (an excellent trade involving Victor Cabrera), Victor Wanyama and Luis Binks. Joel Waterman looks a decent prospect despite limited opportunities so far and Montreal may yet realize healthy dividends from the likes of Mason Toye, Mustafa Kizza and Emmanuel Maciel, all introductions made by the current administration, which continues to wrestle with mistakes from the past.

Toronto FC v Montreal Impact
Romell Quioto (right) has been an excellent addition to the squad.
Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Mistakes from the Past
Remi Garde is a good, solid, football man, knows the game inside out, a coach of some pedigree as anyone in France’s second city will confirm. Looking back on his tenure, he underestimated MLS right from the very beginning and when the realization dawned, it was probably too late.

I’m not sure what went on in his head when he offered such lucrative terms to Rudy Camacho in 2018, and decided upon giving a chance to Harry Novillo, a player who was trouble for him at Olympique Lyonnais. Poor decisions both. Each have cost the club, arguably Camacho more dearly than Novillo, even if the latter still took up salary space after his departure.

For his part, Thierry Henry has been disciplined in not criticizing his former Beveren-Waas centre-back by name, he hasn’t had too so blatant were the errors. But at times the coach’s stomach must have been in knots and his head in torment wondering just what he’s being forced to work with. Only for a pate already shorn, he’d have been pulling his hair out too! In clumps...

Garde also brought in Maxi Urruti, who had certain qualities, but when a goalscorer was required, a quick glance at the former Newell’s Old Boys man’s MLS stats, would have raised the flag and told him, ‘This is not your man!’ Maxi is another high-salaried misfit in a squad which is slowly becoming less dysfunctional.

Identity
For the first time under Renard and Henry, Montreal Impact appears to be developing an identity. Renard has a clear methodical plan around the ‘how’ and ‘what’ when it comes to working the transfer market, and Henry knows exactly how he wants his team to play.

We’ve already seen improvements in some players, positive signs of a more expansive playing style and the coach emboldening his players encouraging them to take risks.

It won’t all come together overnight due to some of the constraints outlined, but with the pair in tandem the combination has potential, perhaps powerfully so. It all depends on them being given the time, space and resources to do their jobs, and the commitment of the two men themselves of course.

What happens if one gets fed up and decides to walk? Stranger things have happened in the past at Montreal Impact, and that’s without anything like Covid-19 being around.

Time, continuity and loyalty are key ingredients. Look how long it took Jim Curtin at Philadelphia, and where they are now.

Philadelphia Union v DC United
Jim Curtin and Philadelphia. The patient approach has reaped dividends...
Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Stupid, silly errors have cost Montreal dearly this season, not something systemic. I’m talking absolute individual howlers, not unfortunate mistakes. The table could have been much rosier-looking now without those, and there would probably be a second Canadian Championship title to look forward to as well.

That’s not Thierry Henry’s fault. So I don’t buy it for one moment when he declares, “For everything that’s been happening, I take the blame.”

It’s an admirable assertion. But the newfound professionalism detected at Montreal Impact has displayed just the type of characteristics required to turn the ship around. Faults will be identified and rectified, or those responsible moved on.

Of course I hope the play-offs become a reality this season, but I won’t lose any sleep should they disappear from view.

What happens between now and 2021 is of more interest and then it’s a matter of taking stock. If we’re in the same situation at this stage next season as we are this, then all our understandings, will have grown much, much thinner.