The Montreal Impact missed the mark (again) in 2019. So what’s next?

The Montreal Impact are picking up the pieces after yet another failed MLS season, and the team’s new sporting director Olivier Renard has a lot of decisions to make before they take to the pitch again in 2020.  

Renard — who was hired just last week — doesn’t have time to waste as the Impact are set to compete in the CONCACAF Champions League in February.  

He says one of his primary goals is to build an identity for the Impact with their style of play on the field. Before he can do that, he needs to decide who will be his coach and what players he will invest in. 

So what went wrong?

Part one: The schedule

The Impact certainly had challenges this season and while some, such as an injury-plagued year for their highest paid player Ignacio Piatti, were unforeseeable, there were other issues that they brought on themselves.

Their MLS schedule was rough.  

Olivier Renard was hired only last week as the team’s new sporting director. (Thierry Roge/AFP/Getty Images)

Because it’s too cold to play outdoors in Montreal in February and March and the team wasn’t willing to play its home games inside at the Olympic Stadium, they started the season with six straight games on the road.

After playing one game at home, the team hit the road again, playing eight of the first nine games away from home.

Surprisingly, the Impact survived that opening stretch, earning 14 out of a possible 21 points. By the June international break, they were comfortably in a position to advance to the post-season, racking up 27 points in 18 games. 

Perhaps it was overconfidence, or perhaps the rigours of the schedule they just endured caught up to them. Whatever it was, upon returning from that break, the team wasn’t the same.

Despite a favourable schedule with many home games, a 2-6-1 streak led to head coach Rémi Garde being fired. And while his replacement, Wilmer Cabrera,  he manage to deliver a Canadian Championship, he failed to get things back on track enough to salvage the season. 

Part two: Poor signings

Garde and the Impact brought in a few players in 2019 that caused more issues for the team than they delivered results on the pitch.

Garde brought in midfielder Harry Novillo, expecting him to be a key factor in the Impact’s attack. But instead of goals, his quarrels with the coaching staff defined his time in Montreal and, midway through the season, the club cut ties with him. 

Montreal Impact’s Harry Novillo reacts after scoring against Columbus Crew SC in April. The Montreal Impact and Novillo agreed to mutually terminate the midfielder’s contract. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Omar Browne arrived from Panama with the promise of a brilliant left foot, but his time in Montreal won’t be remembered for his natural ability to be creative with the ball. 

Instead, fans will never forget Garde cursing him out from the sidelines at the top of his lungs during a 2-1 loss to Columbus. Browne went home to Panama after only three months. 

Maximiliano Urruti’s trade to Montreal from Dallas promised to deliver reliable offensive output from the striker position.

Yet Urruti went until August before putting his first ball in the net during the run of play and ended up with only four goals on the season in total.  

Defender Zakaria Diallo — healthy after sitting out all of 2018 with a leg injury — finally got on the pitch in 2019.

But with 10 games to go and the playoffs hanging in the balance, he expressed his desire to leave and Montreal obliged.

They transferred him to a second division team in France, forcing the club to rework its back line on the fly.  

Ballou Tabla was brought back to Montreal on loan after being sold to Barcelona a few years ago, yet he didn’t play any significant minutes.

Montreal Impact’s head coach Wilmer Cabrera looks on from the sideline during a game against the New York Red Bulls. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

The details around that are fuzzy. All we know is that after a practice last month he had a long heart-to-heart with coach Wilmer Carbrera, allegedly apologizing for an off-the-field indiscretion.

But what that indiscretion was remains a mystery. 

Who’s worth keeping in 2020?   

The Impact did only make bad acquisitions in 2019. This year saw the arrival of players such as Lassi Lappalainen and Orji Okwonkwo on loan from Bologna.

Both are young and talented, and while they’ve both made it clear that their long-term career goals include playing in Europe, they were great additions to the team.

Renard could easily fit them into his vision for a team with an attack-first mentality.

Samuel Piette was another bright spot for the team. His presence in the midfield as a stabilizing force on defence and his ability to almost always make the smart pass was always noticeable when he was on the pitch.

Montreal Impact’s Ignacio Piatti salutes fans following an MLS soccer game against the New York Red Bulls, in Montreal. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

He needs a new contract and the fact that he’s a local player is something that Renard might want to take into consideration. 

Ignacio Piatti is the biggest question mark, however.

He’s certainly an all-time player for the Impact and he still has great talent in his legs.

But given his recent injury woes, the fact that he’s 34, and his price point, Renard has to decide if it’s worth keeping him.

Piatti has a multi-million dollar club option on his contact for next season. Renard has to decide whether to activate it or to let Piatti walk and spend his money on other players on the open market. 

Finally, there is coach Cabrera. He did lead Montreal to a win over Toronto in the Canadian Championship final and book a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League, but his 2-4-1 record in MLS fell four points shy of making the playoffs. 

Hope renewed with Champions League

The CONCACAF Champions League has always meant a lot to the Montreal Impact, so starting next season with the event is a blessing for the club. 

Their success in 2008 and the series with Santos Laguna in 2009, arguably, was the turning point which led to the club making the move to the MLS.

Montreal Impact players raise the Voyageurs Cup after defeating Toronto FC in the second leg of Canadian Champion soccer action in Toronto. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

Their run to the final in 2015, along with the arrival of Didier Drogba later that same year, spurred interest in the club to its highest historic levels. 

Now, after three years out of the MLS playoffs and with attendance numbers waning, the club is once again hoping the competition can reignite the city’s love affair with the team. 

Renard needs to work fast to get the team ready to compete and, if he can build it, the fans will come back. 

Read more at CBC.ca