MONTREAL â€” They were entertaining and mostly successful in the Major League Soccer playoffs last fall. Now it’s time for the Montreal Impact to take that energy into a whole new season.
The Impact, with a starting 11 unchanged from the end of the 2016 campaign, open the regular season Saturday night in San Jose against an Earthquakes squad that made major changes after missing the playoffs for a fourth year in a row.
While the Impact feel good about themselves going into the new season, winning on the road is never easy in MLS, even against a team they have never lost to (3-0-2) since joining the league in 2012.
“We want to get off to a good start, but it’s always difficult playing teams in their home openers with the hype and the sellout crowds, so we’ve got to be ready for all this,” coach Mauro Biello said this week. “We have to go there and play a smart game in terms of what we can take advantage of versus San Jose and what we need to do to limit them.”
His club hopes to start off with an away win for a second year in a row after edging the Whitecaps 3-2 in last year’s opener in Vancouver on a pair of goals from Ignacio Piatti and another from Dominic Oduro.
Both goal-scorers are back along with striker Matteo Mancosu, who nudged departed superstar Didier Drogba from the starting lineup near the end of last season and forged quick chemistry with his attacking partners. The Italian, who arrived on loan from Bologna FC last summer, enters this season armed with a new two-year contract as a full-fledged Impact player.
The rest of the usual starting lineup has Evan Bush in goal, Laurent Ciman and Victor Cabrera in the central defence, Hassoun Camara and Ambroise Oyongo at fullback and Hernan Bernardello, Marco Donadel and Patrice Bernier in the midfield.
The rare newcomers, like right back Chris Duvall and midfielder Adrian Arregui, are among Biello’s options for substitutions.
The returning group took Montreal to the Eastern Conference final for the first time, where it lost in extra time to rival Toronto FC in a high-scoring home and away series.
Biello has worked on some new formations in training camp to try to make his team less dependent on last year’s defend-and-counterattack approach, but it may take time to see the results on the field.
“It’s not going to be that we go into San Jose thinking we worked on something for two weeks and it’s perfect,” the third-year coach said. “There are things we need to continue to improve on.
“There are good things in pre-season we tried to establish, especially in games against D.C. and Philadelphia, in terms of winning balls back higher and having that quick defensive transition. Our build up play was also good. Unbalancing the last line is something we need to continue to work on.”
The Earthquakes should evoke fond memories for the Impact. When San Jose visited on Sept. 28, Montreal was in a slump, having gone winless in four games overall and four game at home, and were in danger of falling out of the playoff race.
The Impact took a 2-1 lead, but Ciman hauled down Shea Salinas and a penalty shot was awarded in the 87th minute to veteran striker Chris Wondolowski. The Saputo Stadium crowd when berserk as Bush made the save and Montreal added a third goal in extra time to turn their season around.
It is not the same Earthquakes squad now, although Wondolowski and goalkeeper David Bingham remain their best-known players.
New Earthquakes general manager Jesse Fioranelli shipped out eight players and brought in seven new faces. Notable among them were German right back Florian Jungwirth and Costa Rican international forward Marco Urena.
Last season, San Jose were last in the league with 32 goals scored, but they were among the best defensive sides with only 40 allowed. Despite an 8-12-14 overall record, they were 7-3-7 at home.
The Impact play their home opener March 11 at Olympic Stadium against the defending MLS champion Seattle Sounders, then play three more on the road before facing expansion team Atlanta on April 15 at Saputo Stadium.
The Impact have always played their MLS season opener on the road (2-3-0).
Bill Beacon, The Canadian Press