Lessons from the Montréal Impact's growth in MLS
MONTRÉAL - On the surface, there aren't many similarities between the Impact and the Union.
The Impact are built to capture the imagination of a colorful, passionate and wildly diverse city. They don't hesitate to spend big money on big stars, most recently goal-scoring phenom Didier Drogba. They have a flamboyant and outspoken owner in Joey Saputo. They play in a stadium that's a 10-minute subway ride from the heart of downtown. They also were a thriving lower-division club for decades before joining MLS.
The Union aim to be a reflection of a region that sees itself as hard-working and blue-collar. They lack major financial resources, and so jump at opportunities to cast themselves as an underdog. Their chairman has historically preferred to stay in the shadows. They play in a stadium that's half an hour's drive from downtown, with limited reach by public transit. They were built from scratch, and launched because a fan base without a team to root for willed them into existence.
Yet the two clubs share some key traits. They both have been forced to grow up while standing in the increasingly public spotlight of North American soccer's top league. They both have seen their fan bases fall in love with their teams - the Union in their 2011 playoff run and last year's U.S. Open Cup final, the Impact in charging through this year's CONCACAF Champions League and MLS playoffs.
And most importantly, they both know how it feels to be ignored.
The Union have long had to settle for scraps from the Philadelphia region's media outlets, which gorge themselves on coverage of the Eagles, Phillies, Flyers and 76ers. Many Center City-based soccer fans who pack English-themed bars on weekends don't go to Chester because they don't have cars.
The Impact have for years seen half-empty crowds when the Canadiens are playing at the same hour, or when Formula 1's Grand Prix or a big music festival is in town. Some English-speaking fans claim to live too far from the French-speaking quarter where the stadium is built. An old joke I've heard before is that fans don't go because it's raining, and fans don't go because it isn't raining.
I was at Stade Saputo for the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series against Columbus. The house was packed and rocking, and the city's newspapers and TV stations were full of Impact coverage. Soccer was unquestionably the talk of the town, even though the Canadiens were home that night. You could feel the buzz all over town, not just in the stadium. If you watched the game on TV, you got a good taste of it.
To be sure, Drogba's star power is a big reason for the newfound buzz around the Impact. But what matters most is that the team has finally produced the winning team it has long craved, and the city has responded.
"Champions League, the way we ended the season, and where are, this is great," Impact midfielder Patrice Bernier told me after the game, and he would know. The 36-year-old grew up in Brossard, just across the St. Lawrence River from downtown Montreal. He began his professional career with the Impact in 2000 when they were in the second division, spent a decade in Europe, then came home when the MLS team launched in 2012.
Bernier hasn't always had the easiest time of things with the Impact, due mainly to the team's frequent changes in head coach. But he flourished after current boss Mauro Biello took the reins in late summer, wearing the captain's armband and scoring huge goals in both of the Impact's home playoff games.
"It is a lot of emotions, just trying to make the people get even more attached to the club and be behind the team," he said. "As a hometown person, it's even more special... Making history is what people latch on to, and stories. The story has been great so far, and we're going to try to make things even better as we go."
It's nice to come in, beat TFC [in the last game of the regular season and again to start the playoffs], get here and try to lift this city to follow this club.
Montreal made the MLS playoffs once before, in 2013. That trip ended almost as quickly as it began, with a 3-0 blowout loss in Houston that cost fiery manager Marco Schällibaum his job. Nine players from this year's team were on that year's team too, including Bernier. So he's not the only Impact player who has watched firsthand as the team has improved both its quality and its maturity.
"Last time we went to the playoffs, we weren't in the right state of mind - we crashed toward the end of the season, we scrapped, we got in by the back door," Bernier said. "Now we came in with a great mindset, with seven wins from [the last] 12 games."
Biello gets a lot of the credit for that strong run to close the campaign. He has been part of the Montreal organization since the team was known as the Supra in the early 1990s, as a player from 1991 to 2009 and as an assistant coach from thereafter until this year. He has long been regarded as a potential head coach, and finally got his shot when Frank Klopas was dismissed at the end of August.
The Impact ultimately lost the playoff series to Columbus, but it's clear to Bernier and many other observers that Biello has done more than enough to deserve to keep the job.
"He works hard, he has been learning, and he got his shot," Bernier told me. "He's managing his team well, he's been upfront with everybody and communication has been great... It's always tough to come into a team where there was another coach and it's not really your team, and to get quick success with a team that has a lot of ambitions."
Bernier's words might sound familiar to Union fans. Jim Curtin has drawn similar praise from his players throughout his tenure, especially when it comes to communication skills. There's no doubt that Curtin has had to learn on the job, just as Biello has. Curtin has never been afraid to admit that. But when you have a coach that players want to play for, that means something.
It certainly means something to Impact vice president Nick De Santis, who along with Saputo and technical director Adam Braz must decide whether to lift the interim tag from Biello's title. All signs point to that happening, potentially as soon as this week, but it's still not official yet.
As I walked out of the Impact's locker room, I saw De Santis - who is Biello's brother-in-law, by the way - standing near the door. I asked him if I could pose a few questions, and he was happy to oblige. We chatted about the Impact's success this season, how the club has matured during its years in MLS, and what he personally has learned as he has adjusted to life on a bigger stage than the Impact has ever seen before.
Throughout this year's playoffs, I've intentionally tried to emphasize why Union should pay attention to teams that have done what their team hasn't. You've seen the theme in my Games to Watch columns, and in my recent profile of New York Red Bulls manager Jesse Marsch.
The Union's recent front office overhaul makes right now an especially critical time to look at how other teams in MLS are succeeding. De Santis' role with the Impact has changed over the years, but he has always had a lot of power and influence - and has taken plenty of heat from Impact fans when things have gone wrong.
So as you read the transcript of our conversation (which is edited a bit for clarity), think about what the Union can learn from the Impact's growth. There might be more than you expect.
How fulfilling was it to have this home playoff game and present Montreal to people across MLS who maybe hadn't seen the Impact before?
Well, I felt after last year's disappointing season, us as a club, even in the second division, we were always a club that looked to get better, to win and to win championships. We knew coming into MLS wasn't going to be easy, but we felt that with the right players and the right mentality, we could keep growing.
I think this year, the club showed that. We went and got important players to build a good nucleus. I feel that after the Champions League, there were some highs and lows, but with the addition of Didier [Drogba] midway through the season, and the team already showing signs that it had the quality to compete - now we're at a point where we finished third, which was an objective of ours, and I think we're very proud of that, because in a very tough conference, finishing third is already a feat in and of itself.
Then eliminating Toronto in that first knockout round and coming into the semifinals of the Eastern Conference for us was very important, and then you felt the energy of the crowd, the energy of the city. We just feel now that we're in a good moment, the team's feeling good about itself, there's a lot of confidence around the team.
The first Impact game I ever covered was in 2010, when I came here to profile Glenside native and Temple University product Tony Donatelli, who was playing here at the time.
It was known at that point that the team was headed to MLS, and I remember walking out of the old Stade Saputo thinking that this city was ready for it. Now it seems pretty clear that Montreal understands that its soccer team is at the top level of the sport in North American in a way that it wasn't before. And that's saying something for a team that was able to draw 12,000 fans to games while in the second division. Is that a fair assessment?
For sure. And we felt the pressures as well in those years, 2009 and 2010, that we needed to make the jump [up to MLS]. If not, we were going to lose those 12 to 13,000 fans a game, because they felt that with a new stadium*, with the backing of the club, with the fan support, we needed to be in the big leagues.
[* - Stade Saputo first opened in 2008 with a capacity of 13,034. It was expanded to its current capacity of 20,801 when the team joined MLS.]
Thanks to Joey Saputo and the Saputo family [we] took this initiative and went into MLS. And I think we've shown from year one that we've had some pretty good seasons. The first year; the second year, we made the playoffs. The fourth year, again, we made the playoffs and we find ourselves in the semifinals of the Eastern Conference.
So again, if all the right pieces are in place at the top of the puzzle, I think that everything generates itself on down. Right now, we're living in a good moment. We lived through a good moment in the Champions League, but it was important for us that we do well in MLS as well.
Do you think that in addition to the fans and the city learning things about having their team in the top flight, the organization learned some things as well, especially in the down years like last season?
Without a doubt. I think that the good organizations - like players, like coaches, like staff - learn from mistakes. And we've made our mistakes along the way. MLS is a very difficult league to play in. The beauty of MLS is that it's a very balanced league.
That's where you have to figure out that when things are going well, you try to pounce on the positives. When things are a bit negative, that's where we have to be strong and try to get out of those moments. Because team in this league can beat any team.
This year we were able, when we did have one two losses, to get out of those moments and find some positives. Again, it's a league that it's not easy to play in, but we've shown now, especially this year, that we can compete against anyone.
Everyone saw, even in the United States, the explosion of attention when Drogba joined the team - especially that raucous scene at the airport the day he arrived in town. People who know Montreal well, even outsiders, know that the city has a sizeable West African immigrant population, and they helped build the buzz. That community is coming to your team now, but you know that Drogba won't be here forever. So how do you keep those fans for the long term as Impact fans, and not just Drogba fans?
That's one of the jobs at hand for the club. Didier has brought a lot, and we felt that with Didier's profile, personality and where he has played, and especially in our multi-cultural city, we felt - he has played in England, so we can get those fans that have been watching him in the Premier League. He's an African, and we have Africans all over, and he's very popular with them. He's been a champion all his life. He's played with the biggest clubs.
So we felt especially for our city, he would be the perfect profile to come. Then you have to think, he came in and with DPs you always question: are they going to come in for the right reasons?
And whether he would succeed right off the bat, which he has done remarkably well.
Not only for him to score goals, but for him now to take responsibility, with his big personality, to come into a dressing room and say, "Let's go in this direction." And he has done that from day one. From day one, he has put everyone at ease.
Because he is a big personality, guys would maybe be timid around him and a little shy. He made everyone feel at home right away. He made everyone feel at ease, from upper management to staff to players. And he basically led this team up until now. In the end, I think there's a team around him with a lot of quality, with experience, and he's just kind of filled in that piece of the puzzle that was missing.
I often hear it said of fans in Montreal - and Toronto and Vancouver, the other Canadian MLS cities - that they follow their local team very passionately but don't pay too much attention to the rest of the league. From your perspective, what needs to happen up here to change that?
That's a very good question. We always ask ourselves the same question as well. Yes, we want our fans to attach themselves to our club and the city, but now we need to get them on board [with MLS]. One of the phrases that always comes up for me is that it's a cultural thing. It's going to take time to build up that soccer culture where the fans from Montréal know what's going on in Columbus, what's going on in Portland.
That's going to take some time. Of course we're going to need media help as well, because at times, even here in Montréal, or in Canada as a whole, the sports stations don't give the weekend goals from every team - they just talk about the local team. And that's something that's a work in progress, not only within the club, but within the league.