Behind every great team is a great general manager. For the Montreal Impact, it's Nick De Santis.
The Impact surprised a lot of soccer fans when it won the Canadian club championship last summer and then defeated Nicaraguan side Real Esteli to earn a spot in the group stage of the inaugural CONCACAF Champions league.
Montreal didn't rest on its laurels, though. Drawn into a difficult round-robin group that few expected them to survive, the Impact posted impressive victories over Trinidadian champions Joe Public FC and Olimpia of Honduras, and earned a credible draw against Mexican outfit Atlante.
The Impact's stellar form in the first round propelled them into the Champions League quarter-finals against Mexico's Santos Laguna, with the opener of the two-game playoff slated for Wednesday in Montreal (CBC Bold, CBCSports.ca, 8 p.m. ET).
The Impact's Cinderella run in the tournament didn't go unnoticed: A handful of Major League Soccer clubs expressed interest in Montreal goalkeeper Matt Jordan.
Despite the promise of playing in the top soccer division in the U.S. and Canada — Montreal competes in the USL-1, one level below MLS — Jordan re-signed with the Impact, as did defenders Nevio Pizzolitto and Stefano Pesoli, and midfielders Sandro Grande, Mauro Biello and Patrick Leduc.
The Impact also signed new players, including Antiguan striker Peter Byers, veteran forward Eduardo Sebrango (who previously played for Montreal for three years), and former Toronto FC goalkeeper Srdjan Djekanovic.
Secret to success
How was De Santis able to successfully re-sign the team's key players in the off-season, and bolster the roster with new recruits? By convincing players that the Impact is more than a soccer club; that it is a close-knit family and the team will continue to grow and prosper (and will eventually play in MLS) if they buy into the philosophy of owner Joey Saputo and management.
"It goes back to the mentality of the club," De Santis told CBCSports.ca. "These players have come here and saw what our vision was and what we we're aiming to do, which is to build a foundation for future success."
"You take a guy like Matt Jordan who had a great season last year— he had interest from MLS clubs and being an American he was naturally interested in playing in that league and going home. We gave him the liberty to look at those offers, but in the end he saw the vision we had, the mentality and the structure we have in place here and that convinced him to stay."
De Santis, 41, has a long and storied association with the Impact.
After beginning his pro career in 1987 with the Montreal Supra of the old Canadian Soccer League, De Santis signed for the Impact in 1993 and helped the club win the league championship in 1994.
In total, the Montreal native played 219 games in 10 seasons during two stints with the Impact before retiring after the 2003 season. De Santis took over as coach in 2004 and led the team to its second league championship that season. A year later, he won USL-1's coach of the year award.
"When I was coaching and the team did well, people would ask me what my vision was — if I wanted to go coach abroad. I always said I wanted to remain with the club and help it getter better at every level," De Santis said.
But after the team struggled out of the gate during the 2008 campaign, De Santis stepped down as coach last June and handed the coaching reins over to former teammate John Limniatis.
It proved a wise move. The team thrived under Limniatis, beating out the Vancouver Whitecaps and Toronto FC to win the Canadian club championship.
It also allowed De Santis to focus on his duties as general manager.
"It was a good decision, because there needed to be a change and it was the right time to do it. At that point I was the coach and GM and everything went through me, and at a certain point it became too much," De Santis admitted.
"As we got bigger as a club, there needed to be that distinction between the coach and GM, and there's a good working relationship between John and I, and we're on the same wavelength."
Better chance for success
De Santis explained that he re-signed so many players and brought in a few names during the winter in order to give Montreal a better chance of succeeding in the Champions League, something he feels is imperative for the team.
"We need to do well in this tournament because we've flown under the radar a bit in the USL, so this was an important step in our progression," De Santis said. "If we can win this, then we're going to go on a higher stage and we're going to be able to compare ourselves to the best teams in CONCACAF. That was our objective from the start."
Obviously, De Santis would be thrilled if the Impact wins the Champions League, but he feels Montreal's success in the competition to this point not only validates the moves he's made, but also proves the team is headed in the right direction.
"This is a family. This is something I take a lot of pride in — seeing the club on and off the field progress and get bigger. We're lucky to have a president who has the same mentality and for him it's not about making money, it's about the club progressing to the highest level possible," De Santis said.