Montreal’s First Season Sees Challenges To Go With Hope
The Montreal Impact are cruising along in their first season. They were buoyed by a few positive early results and a couple of huge crowds at their temporary home, Olympic Stadium. Now that revamped Saputo Stadium is open and an exciting European striker has signed, the team looks to captivate the hearts of Southern Quebec.
There are a few different ways that expansion teams can settle into Major League Soccer. On the rare occasion, a team does perform like the Seattle Sounders did back in 2009, winning the U.S. Open Cup and earning a berth in the MLS Cup Playoffs. More likely is that expansion teams end up like the Philadelphia Union and Vancouver Whitecaps – scrapping away for points, hoping to draw interest at a new or spruced-up facility. That’s where the Montreal Impact stand near the halfway point of their first season. Yet an exciting new signing and a facelift for its home has given a cause for hope.
It was an auspicious first two months for the Impact, especially for a town that is usually owned by the beloved Montreal Canadiens. Fortune was on their side, with the Habs missing the NHL Playoffs for the first time since 2007. This meant all eyes were on Olympic Stadium back in March, and a packed house of 58,912 witnessed the first point in the team’s MLS history, a 1-1 draw against Chicago. The next home match, in front of a still solid crowd (23,120), saw their first victory against interprovincial rivals Toronto F.C.
Another achievement was reached when the league’s celebrities visited in May. The attendance breached 60,000 fans at Olympic Stadium, and the Impact earned a draw against David Beckham and a struggling L.A. Galaxy team. With that kind of crowd, any team would hope that the move across Olympic Park to the expanded Stade Saputo would carry over with some sellouts. That hasn’t happened yet.
June brought the reopening of the stadium named for the team’s chairman, Joey Saputo. He has done a great deal to invest in this team, and it’s obvious that immediate results should be expected while also building towards the future. The team has brought in two experienced Serie A combatants, Algerian-born Matteo Ferrari and more recently Bologna striker Marco Di Vaio. Adding those players to some promising youngsters (Justin Braun, Zarek Valentin, and #1 SuperDraft pick Andrew Wenger) and some veteran MLS chaps (Donovan Ricketts, Davy Arnaud, Justin Mapp) should place Montreal on excellent footing as they look to ascend the Eastern Conference in the years to come.
Yet Montreal is still an expansion team, and the headaches of melding all this talent together are Jesse Marsch’s to bear. There’s also an element of building the fan base. The early attendance figures at Olympic Stadium were impressive, but as the team has struggled to find results the fan numbers at Saputo Stadium haven’t looked so good. Their midweek fixture against Toronto had 14,412 through the gates, which is about 70% capacity. One can make plenty of excuses, but suffice it to say it’s going to take some time.
The good news is that they seem to have made the redone Saputo Stadium their home. Two victories were earned as they opened their new digs, including a 4-1 drubbing of Seattle. Wednesday’s 3-0 setback against Toronto brought the stadium’s first MLS loss, but for anyone who has observed the Reds’, you understand that Toronto is emerging from a time of tumult and change. Montreal has three home matches in July, and hopefully the signing of Di Vaio (the team’s first Designated Player who made his debut Wednesday) can excite the local fans and bring another wave of attendance growth.
And for all of this, the Impact sits 8th out of 10 in the Eastern Conference. It’s true that they have played a few more matches than the two teams below them, Philadelphia and Toronto, but they have earned their points and are a team that seems to be building on the model of Vancouver. A refurbished stadium, an exciting DP signing, and a solid group of youngsters from which to build. The Eastern Conference may want to look out for Montreal in 2013.