For the first time in franchise history, the Montreal Impact qualified for the MLS playoffs in back-to-back seasons. The Impact also reached its first-ever Eastern Conference final. If not for a few monumental comebacks by Toronto FC, Montreal would have been the first Canadian team to make an MLS Cup final.
The Impact were the surprise package in 2016 to many across MLS, but their postseason performances demonstrated that this team is a legitimate contender. They may have lost a couple of players during the offseason, but the majority of the roster from 2016 remains intact, which bodes well for 2017.
Continuity within the coaching staff and the squad is essential if a team wants to be successful. The Impact have been following that formula to the letter, but will it result in another deep run in the playoffs?
Here is a closer look at the 2017 Montreal Impact:
Montreal Impact Preview
2016 FINISH: 11-11-12 (5th in Eastern Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: Blerim Dzemaili, Chris Duvall, Ballou Tabla, Adrian Arregui
KEY LOSSES: Didier Drogba, Harry Shipp, Johan Venegas
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Blerim Dzemaili
The Swiss international won’t arrive until the summer once he’s finished in Serie A with Bologna, but Dzemaili will provide strong pedigree to an Impact team that is loaded with experience in midfield. The 30-year-old was teammates with Marco Donadel at Napoli for three seasons, so chemistry shouldn’t be an issue. Given Donadel’s and Patrice Bernier’s advancing age, Dzemaili could be a valuable rotation option, or even a starter, towards the end of the season.
PRESSURE IS ON: Matteo Mancosu
Joey Saputo certainly utilized his ties to Bologna in 2016. Mancosu joined the Impact from the Serie A club in July, then once he established himself as the starter up front over Didier Drogba, the 32-year-old took full advantage. The Italian hit form at the right time when he completed a brace against D.C. United in the knockout round of the playoffs. He followed it up with crucial strikes against the New York Red Bulls and Toronto FC in the first legs of the Eastern Conference semifinal and final, respectively. Only Jozy Altidore (five) had more postseason goals than Mancosu. Now it’s up to the Sardinian native to produce a similar output during the 2017 regular season. With a full preseason under his belt, he’ll have ample preparation this time around.
The offseason began on a sour note for the Impact when Ignacio Piatti was linked with a return to Argentina. However, after conversations with owner Joey Saputo and the coaching staff, Montreal’s top scorer opted to stay.
That was great news for head coach Mauro Biello. Not only was his star player on board for 2017, the majority of his players remained on the roster. Donny Toia, Harry Shipp, Lucas Ontivero and Didier Drogba were the key departures, but none of them were starting down the stretch and into the playoffs.
The likes of Patrice Bernier and Dominic Oduro re-signed, which helped the Impact stay on course heading into the new campaign.
“It was important for us to bring back some key players, like Dom Oduro and Matteo Mancosu,” said head coach Mauro Biello. “We signed Patrice Bernier. We wanted to have that continuity within the group and have little additions that can improve the team.”
Piatti’s decision to stay in MLS was clearly a massive boost as well. The Argentinian recorded 17 goals and six assists during the regular season, adding another four goals and two assists in the playoffs. Losing him would’ve been devastating, but the team was never worried.
“I spoke with Nacho and like I said, he belongs to us. In the end, these are rumors and there’s always interest for players of his caliber,” said Biello. “We face calls all the time for this type of player.”
The average age of the Impact’s starting XI in the second leg of the Eastern Conference final was a little more than 30. Ambroise Oyongo and Victor Cabrera were the only players under 30 years old.
The Impact addressed that issue by signing 17-year-old winger Ballou Tabla to a homegrown deal in October. Tabla has earned some playing time in the preseason, plus David Choiniere, Anthony Jackson-Hamel and other homegrowns will provide some youth.
But they won’t simply be handed opportunities during the year.
“It’s important that we have competition within the group,” said Biello. “There needs to be pressure. You don’t want complacency in terms of player selection and that’s why, when we make certain adjustments, it’s about keeping people honest in their roles and pushing each other in the right way. In the end, the field will talk and the performances will determine certain positions.”
International call-ups, injuries and suspensions could lead to the likes of Tabla earning minutes during the regular season as well as the Voyageurs Cup. That will alleviate the pressure on the experienced players and will keep the squad fresh throughout the year.
Given the advancing age of the squad, it’s safe to say the Impact are built to contend for an MLS Cup in 2017. The defence anchored by Laurent Ciman and Victor Cabrera is very strong, the midfield is loaded with depth, plus Piatti, Mancosu and Oduro should be a lethal trio up front again.
If all of the above comes to fruition, expect Montreal to, at the very least, return to the conference final in 2017.