MONTREAL — March 5, 2009 is a day that lives in infamy for many Montreal soccer fans.
The Montreal Impact were in Mexico and just five minutes away from pulling off an incredible upset and advancing to the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League.
The Impact may have been losing the match 3-2, but they held a 4-3 aggregate lead over Mexican side Santos Laguna until Carlos Quintero’s injury-time brace sunk the then-second division club in heartbreaking fashion. Now, 13 years later, CF Montreal returns to Estadio Corona on Tuesday night looking for retribution as the club kicks off its 2022 season against Santos Laguna in the CONCACAF Champions League round of 16.
“As a fan at the time, it definitely hurt to watch,” said CF Montreal head coach Wilfried Nancy. “But this is a new environment for a lot of the players so we’re ready for this challenge.”
Montreal secured its fifth trip into the biggest club tournament in North and Central America with a Canadian championship victory over Toronto FC last November. After missing the playoffs in a 2021 MLS season that was marred by injuries, Montreal ended the campaign on a high-note with the 1-0 Voyagers Cup victory over their Canadian rivals.
The win lent significant credence to Nancy’s project of sticking with his core of players.
“The fact that we just added a few players is good for both me and the team,” said Nancy. “We don’t have to start from the beginning, and we have a good base, so I know what kind of football they’re going to play.”
While he champions stability and is pleased with his current stable of players, Nancy did not rule out bringing in reinforcements later in the season should they be needed.
Montreal will play its first regular season game Feb. 27 on the road against Orlando.
Nancy said a strong performance in the Champions League would help the club start the MLS season on the right foot.
With only a few pre-season games under their belt, Montreal's players will need to find their midseason form as quickly as possible.
“It’s going to be very physically demanding to get back into the swing of things,” said Montreal forward Romell Quioto. “Training has gone really well, and the pre-season games were very promising. We’re just excited to start playing official games and see the level we’re at.”
While one of the most successful Mexican clubs with six league titles, Santos Laguna has struggled at the beginning of this year, losing four games and drawing one while conceding 13 goals.
“If you look at their recent record, it doesn’t describe the quality of players they have,” said Montreal midfielder Djordje Mihailovic. “When the match starts, we can’t waste too much time getting things going.”
The trip into soccer-mad Mexico is going to be an eye-opener for many of Montreal's players who have never played in front of an energetic Latin American crowd, something Quioto, a Honduran international, is all too familiar with. Even those who participated in the club’s 2020 Champions League campaign, which included matches against club teams from Costa Rica and Honduras, would not have gotten the full experience because the games were played behind closed doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“All games have a certain amount of stress especially at this level and I’m going to use my experience to help the younger players keep their composure,” said Quioto. “The fact that so many of these guys have international experience definitely helps.”
Tactically, Nancy has no intention of succumbing to the atmosphere either, immediately shutting down the notion of altering the team’s style to a more conservative and counterattacking one. He reasserted that the club’s philosophy is to play with the ball and deploy a progressive attacking style. “If we get in a defensive situation, then we will defend," he said.
CF Montreal and Santos Laguna play the second leg of their two-game set on Feb. 22 at Olympic Stadium in Montreal.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 14, 2022.
Elias Grigoriadis, The Canadian Press