Tough season brings growth, change for young Montreal Impact squad

·5 min read

As a player, Thierry Henry knew the emotional side of soccer could be tough.

Now, after an unusual season as head coach of the Montreal Impact, he has a whole new appreciation for what players go through.

The Major League Soccer schedule was first halted then condensed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Border restrictions forced Montreal's players and staff to move to Harrison, N.J., for nearly two months. Injuries and unexpected absences left Henry with a shortened bench.

The unique campaign reminded the famous French striker that soccer players are human beings.

“I knew it before, but I can definitely say it for sure now. The emotional part of the game, the mental part of the game, those guys, they need to be fresh there to perform," Henry said on a video call Friday, adding that he admires his players for what they achieved under very difficult circumstances.

The Impact finished the regular season ninth in the Eastern Conference with a 8-13-2 record.

The team suffered a five-game losing skid in September and October, and ended the season having conceded 43 goals, the most of any team in the East.

Still, Montreal was able to clinch a spot in the MLS playoffs for the first time since 2016.

The club was knocked out by the New England Revolution in the play-in round on Nov. 20 but the season didn't officially end until Tuesday, when Montreal failed to advance in the CONCACAF Champions League, despite posting a 1-0 victory over Honduran club CD Olimpia.

It wasn't the result the club wanted, but Impact sporting director Olivier Renard said the squad showed "fighting spirit" against Olimpia, especially after quarantine restrictions stopped the group from training together for two full weeks leading up to the game.

“The mentality of the team, it is what I want for the future," Renard said.

Several players stepped up over the course of the year, Henry said, including Canadian midfielder Samuel Piette, 'keeper Clement Diop, who had the third-most saves in the MLS regular season (73), and midfielder Amar Sejdic, who dominated play against Olimpia and scored the game's lone goal.

“It’s just that they came to battle all the time," the coach said. “All those guys gave me everything. And I’ll always respect that.”

One young player Henry pushed throughout the year was defender Luis Binks.

“Sometimes he did answer, sometimes he didn’t answer," Henry said, noting that this season was the first time the 19-year-old English international had played against men.

“I will say that he answered the call very, very well. But as a coach, I’m always going to push him to his limits, because that’s what you do.”

Binks, who was awarded the club's defensive player of the year honour on Friday, remembers Henry pulling him out of a July clash with Toronto FC at halftime.

“I thought after that game that I don’t like being on the bench so I wanted to go and prove myself in training. And thankfully I started the game after against D.C.," he said.

The teen admits there were times this season when he was at fault for goals that the Impact conceded. He knows there's work to be done if he wants to achieve his dream of playing in Europe one day.

“I think it’s slight errors that I need to cut out of my game to go to the next level," Binks said. "I know what I need to do. I’m not naive enough to say that I’m the finished article.”

The progress young players have made in Henry's first season at the helm is what stands out to Renard from a chaotic 2020 campaign.

“It’s not finished, we need to improve many things. But Thierry is 100 per cent in the project with me. And I’m happy with that," the sporting director said.

Big changes are currently in the works for the Impact. The club is reportedly changing its name to Montreal FC, a move that the Montreal Impact Supporters Association has said would cause "a rift" between the Impact and the fan base.

The club issued a statement Friday saying it will "undergo a major identity change" set to be unveiled in 2021.

Some personnel changes are also afoot.

Four players will be out of contract at the end of December and Montreal has opted against exercising options on other four athletes, including high-profile midfielder Bojan Krkic.

The Impact have made the Spaniard an offer to stay, Renard said Friday, but have yet to hear back. He does not expect Krkic to return to Montreal for the 2021 season.

Renard and his staff have already begun replenishing the depleted ranks, adding Canadian defenders Zorhan Bassong and Kamal Miller, and American midfielder Djordje Mihailovic. The club has also promoted four academy products, including 16-year-old Jean-Aniel Assi, who made his debut Tuesday.

The Impact are hanging on to striker Romell Quioto, too. As Montreal's top scorer this season (four goals, six assists), the Honduran international was named the team's MVP on Friday, less than a month after signing a two-year extension that will keep him with the club through the 2022 season.

The Impact's front office still has work to do, Renard said. He doesn't believe a goal scorer is the club's biggest need right now but said he's looking to add personality to the group.

“I know that we need to change many things, also, mentality of players, quality of players," he said. "But I am satisfied with what I saw this year. It was a special year for everybody.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 18, 2020.

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press