Impact thrilled with 1st MLS season, except for missing playoffs
The Montreal Impact had an impressive first season in Major League Soccer but no one from the players to team president Joey Saputo was gloating Wednesday.
The club that started the season 1-5-2 ended up a respectable 12-16-6 for 42 points, but they faded late in the campaign to finish seventh and missed a chance to become a rare expansion team to make the playoffs.
"I'm happy because we attained our goal of being competitive in our first year, but I'm not entirely satisfied because we are not a seventh-place team," Saputo said. "Our objective for 2013 will be to make the playoffs."
There was much to feel good about as Saputo, vice-president Richard Legendre and sporting director Nick De Santis met with the media to analyse a team that looked at times like championship contenders and at others like stumbling newbies.
Saputo said the core of the team will be back, including designated player Marco Di Vaio, former Italy defence stalwart Alessandro Nesta, team player of the year Patrice Bernier, defender Matteo Ferrari, captain Davy Arnaud, first overall draft pick Andrew Wenger, impressive young midfielder Felipe Martins, oft-injured centre back Nelson Rivas and goalkeeper Troy Perkins.
Decisions have yet to be made on other players, but it's likely French defender Hassoun Camara will also be back. Third-string goalie Greg Sutton has announced his retirement, and 39-year-old striker Eddie Sebrango may follow.
The team hopes to upgrade the depth and skill level at both the outside and the centre of midfield and at forward, possibly with the addition of a second designated player, Saputo said.
And head coach Jesse Marsch will return.
"It's our first year in MLS and it's Jesse's first year as a head coach, and I think he's handled himself very well," said De Santis.
The club was also pleased to average about 23,000 fans per game, third best in the league behind Seattle and Los Angeles. The average was boosted by two crowds in the 60,000 range early in the season at Olympic Stadium, before they moved back into an expanded 20,000-seat Saputo Stadium in June.
The Impact hope to add points with strong play from the outset next season. Montreal spent the first half of the 2012 campaign just getting its starting lineup settled.
Defensive improvements needed
And they want to eliminate the lapses that saw them give up a league-worst 17 goals in the final 15 minutes of games and their tendency to fall asleep on opponents' free kicks and corners.
"It's a results-oriented business and for me, especially considering the way the season ended, it wasn't good enough," said Marsch. "There's been a lot of positives from within, but moving forward the expectations and demands have to be much higher, and it starts with me."
The Impact started the season as a largely American side and ended with a heavy Italian accent.
Ferrari was there from training camp, soon to be joined by striker Bernado Corradi, whose season was cut short by a major knee injury.
Then Di Vaio, the star of Serie A's Bologna, signed in mid-season and brought in his national team pal Nesta. The Colombian Rivas and the Brazilian Felipe had also played in Italy.
But Di Vaio took weeks to find his range, partly due to the distraction of having to clear himself at a match-fixing trial in Italy. Nesta was brilliant at times, sluggish at others.
Both should be better after going through a full training camp with the club.
Bernier returned after playing nine years in Europe to join his home town team in MLS and also had ups and downs. He endured the humiliation of being benched for seven games early in the season, then bounced back to lead the team in scoring and win player of the year honours.
"The team evolved a lot in style," said Bernier, from Brossard, Que. "It became something we can call our own.
"In the beginning we were competing but it was mostly hard work, not so creative. Once we came to Saputo Stadium we found more fluidity in our play. Possession, movement, creating a lot of chances. And the arrival of our star players, the Italians, brought a new step to the team."
The high points were a first MLS point and Arnaud scoring the team's first goal before 58,912 at the Big O in a 1-1 draw with Chicago on March 17, a first win against Toronto FC on April 7 and a 1-1 tie with Los Angeles before a record 60,860 on May 12.
After moving back to Saputo Stadium, there were rousing wins of 4-1 over Seattle and 4-2 over Houston.
But then there was their first loss in their outdoor park, 3-0 to Toronto, that moved Saputo to tweet "Absolute disgrace, enough said."
A five-game winning streak in August raised playoff hopes, but they were dashed with a loss in Columbus on a goal in stoppage time and a listless 3-1 defeat in Chicago. Montreal went 0-3-2 down the stretch.
"That's one of the things I think that dropped, the commitment and competitiveness," said Marsch. "I'm proud of the progress the team showed until the end.
"At the end, we didn't play our best. We have to retool knowing we have a good core and that next year the expectations are higher."
The season is not quite over, as they leave Nov. 5 for friendly matches against Serie-A teams Bologna and Fiorentino before the off-season.
The trip is part reward for a good first MLS season and partly a way to extend the club's international presence. And who knows, maybe find another designated player?
Saputo admitted it is another of the unbudgeted expenses that put the team slightly in the red. There was also an extra training camp trip and a mid-season slash in ticket prices.
But he hopes to have the team at least break even next season. It will be the 20th anniversary of the Impact, who played 19 seasons in various lower leagues before joining MLS.