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Montreal Impact's brutal season gains a pulse

They talked to players from other clubs, they visualized, planned, girded.

If it's one thing to intellectualize upheaval, it's quite another to actually experience it up close in the way the Montreal Impact have done in their buffer year between lower-league NASL and the MLS glamour circuit.

"It's something you have to go through to really know what it's about," said 34-year-old defender Nevio Pizzolitto, the club's captain. "It's easy to say at the beginning of the year that there's going to be guys coming and going, it's a try-out, it's a transition year, but it's easier said than done. But I think you grow . . . and the club grows and learns from a tough year like this."

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Tough year is something of an understatement: amid a blizzard of changes, the Impact have played 21 games this year and won just four – two of them against expansion strugglers Edmonton and one last week against the last-place Atlanta Silverbacks.

The low point? Well, it's hard to pick just one.

There's the nine-game winless streak; the time the skipper spat at rival fans (he was later cleared of doing so intentionally); the day the owner publicly chewed out the club's most loyal supporters.

A total of 46 men have rotated through the squad this year; high-profile European signings Kevin Hatchi and Idriss Ech-Chergui were both released in mid-summer, as was French defender Richard Pelletier, who signed in 2010.

Under fire coach Marc Dos Santos resigned at the season's mid-point, the plan to expand Saputo Stadium to 20,000 seats – it includes $23-million in public funds – has been delayed because the initial tenders came in over-budget.

All in all, it's a narrative of turmoil and futility that will seem familiar to soccer fans in Vancouver, but the picture isn't all menacing storm clouds as the season winds down and MLS beckons.

In fact, there is plenty of cause for optimism.

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Attendance for Impact games has mostly held steady despite the anemic performances, corporate interest for sponsorships and luxury suites is picking up.

And the club signed a pair of lucrative contracts with shirt sponsor BMO (which also sponsors Toronto FC) and with upstart French-language cable network TVA Sports.

"Let's face it, this is the moment in our club's history . . . yes, it's challenging, but everyone is pumped up," said Richard Legendre, the Impact's executive vice-president, adding "it feels pretty much like we're organizing two seasons at the same time – it's very motivating."

Legendre said new tenders for the stadium will be issued in the next two weeks – the club has opted for pre-engineered stands that will allow the project to make budget without sacrificing the plans for covered roof sections.

The fact that construction will begin after the season will also mitigate costs, even if it means that the team has to play its first few MLS games in the Olympic Stadium.

"The Big O has been good to us, we had 55,000 for Santos Laguna, 47,000 for (a friendly against) AC Milan," said Legendre.

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Indeed, the club is eyeing the possibility of holding its season openers in the cavernous stadium – which works much better for soccer than it ever did for baseball – in future seasons as well.

All that remains is to meet the target of selling 15,000 season tickets – Legendre says "it's the biggest challenge in the next seven or eight months" – and to find takers for the remaining corporate boxes.

The Impact has also hired a new coach for next season, former MLS player and U.S. national team assistant coach Jesse Marsch, and has taken points from its last two games – the NASL format is forgiving: six of the eight teams in Montreal's division will make the playoffs and the Impact sit seventh.

"We have seven games left . . . this team should not be in the position we are in with the players we have, so we'll see," said sporting director and interim field boss Nick De Santis.

The former Impact playing star has been singled out for particularly brutal treatment by a segment of the fan base including the team's Ultras (a loyal, hard-core fans group that briefly staged a walk-out to protest the squad's ineptness on the pitch).

De Santis ripped the Ultras in a recent radio interview and team president and principal owner Joey Saputo followed suit when the fan group slammed the team's recruitment policy and ticket price hikes, among other things.

"I think this season hasn't really accomplished very much, it's raised more questions than it's answered about the players who were here and the ones brought in," said Patrick Leduc, a former Canadian international midfielder who retired from the Impact last spring.

The fact that no players are under contract for next season has only accentuated the daily pressures of competitive soccer.

"I don't think you can say it hasn't been a distraction. Even it's not management's intention, guys have trouble feeling that the club is behind them," said Leduc, who now writes a soccer column for La Presse.

There is also criticism that the Impact didn't fully assimilate the lessons learned by fellow Canadian MLS sides Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps – both have struggled to find the stability that allows good clubs to flourish.

De Santis holds a different view.

"I think we've learned an important lesson: we all have to be on the same page. If we work together and have the same vision and same principles – we can have different opinions – we will have success," he said.

With the highly-regarded Marsch in place (the 37-year-old has attended training regularly since his appointment) the preparations for next year are in full swing.

Though Saputo has repeatedly said he doesn't want the Impact to look like a typical expansion club (i.e., lose a lot), De Santis is realistic in his expectations.

"Jesse's message was 'if you think things are difficult this year, wait until next year.' That's a reality," he said. "We have to look at what's been done by other expansion teams and fix certain things, but the reality is we are an expansion team and we have to find 20 odd new players," he said.

The emphasis will shortly shift to finding bargains in the South American and European lower divisions, and planning for this winter's expansion draft and the MLS Super Draft (Montreal has the top pick among U.S. college players).

But more immediately, there is the NASL season and despite injuries to Canadian forwards Reda Agourram and Ali Gerba, the team, with several new arrivals including on-loan Colombian striker Miguel Montano, is showing signs of rounding into form.

"We're starting to have fun again, and I think that's very encouraging," said Pizzolitto.

Winning is the balm that soothes all wounds, and the players are trying to put the best possible spin on their situation.

"There's positives as well. In Vancouver there's a handful of guys who stayed, in Portland as well. So it's not that they're going to change the team completely, if you perform well enough you have a chance," Pizzolitto said.

The Whitecaps, who have had a rude introduction to MLS and sit in last place, also had an up-and-down season in their transition year.

But they also managed to play well enough to reach the league semi-finals (beating fellow MLS expansion team Portland along the way).

"It's the end of the year that people remember . . . we absolutely want to do it. Can we do it? Absolutely," Pizzolitto said. "If we pick up a few wins here and get into the playoffs, I don't think any team is going to want to play us.."

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About the Author
National Correspondent

Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More

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