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Expansion Lesson #3: Montreal Impact

The Impact missed the playoffs, and another expansion team coach bit the dust

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In many ways, despite having a payroll around the league average at $3.45 million, the Montreal Impact's first-year experience looks eerily similar to the big spending NYCFC and Orlando City expansion teams:

  • No Playoffs: They missed the playoffs, earning 42 points and finishing seventh in the East with a 12-16-6 record.
  • Good O, No D: Their offense was solid and they set an expansion team record at the time with 45 goals scored. But the Impact's defense was poor, allowing the fourth-most goals in MLS.
  • Hated to Travel: They excelled at home (10-4-3, +12 goal difference), yet struggled away (2-12-3, -18 goal difference).
  • Super Streaky: They had a dreadful start to the season, going their first six games without a win, but unleashed a five-game win streak in August.

Atlanta United FC can draw a couple of insights from the Impact's so-so season. I'll start with a stop-me-if-you've-heard-this-one lesson...

Lesson 1: Don't Give Up On Your Coach

Similar to how NYCFC unceremoniously dumped Jason Kreis, Montreal cut loose head coach Jesse Marsch after only one mediocre season. In the grand tradition of firing a coach without actually saying so in a press conference, Marsch left the Impact "by mutual agreement" through an "amicable parting of ways."

The firing was cold-blooded, and he wouldn't find another head coaching job in MLS until the New York Red Bulls hired him last year. I imagine the Impact regret their decision to let go of Marsch, considering he won the Supporters Shield with the Red Bulls last season and was named the 2015 MLS Coach of the Year. (To be fair, NYRB are struggling big time so far this year.)

Once again, I'd say the lesson for AUFC is to at least give their head coach a chance to succeed before cutting bait.

Lesson 2: Your Highest-Paid DP Should Actually Play

Montreal only signed one designated player that year—Italian striker Marco Di Vaio from Serie A. Despite Di Vaio being in his mid-30's, he was still a potent offensive weapon and turned out to be a great signing.

But...he didn't sign until the Serie A season ended in late May, and he wouldn't play his first game until the transfer window reopened in late June. He wound up playing only 17 games and finished the year with 5 goals and 3 assists. The following year, when he played the whole season, Di Vaio was an MVP finalist, scoring 22 goals in all competitions and becoming only the 11th player in MLS history to score 20 or more league goals. Who knows, maybe if the Impact had managed to sign Di Vaio sooner they might have made the postseason.

So my lesson to Darren Eales and company is this: get your designated players squared away as soon as possible, especially the ones you're signing to million-dollar contracts. The way Orlando City handled their business with Kaká was ideal. They signed him from AC Milan in June 2014, long before their own season kicked off in 2015, and then loaned him out to São Paulo. He was able to keep his skills sharp and fitness level high in Brazil, and he was with his Orlando City teammates from the start of the inaugural season.

Lesson 3: Find Value On the Open Market

Several of Montreal's best players in 2012 had low six-figure salaries, including Canada's Patrice Bernier, who made $149K in total compensation. He was the leading scorer on the team with 9 goals, had 8 assists, and was named the MLS Player of the Month in August 2012. He also made the MLS Team of the Week five times and was chosen as the team's MVP at season's end. Unfortunately, head coach Jesse Marsch didn't see Bernier's value right away and sat him on the bench for a string of early season games. Two other players turned out to be valuable, yet affordable signings for the Impact: Sanna Nyassi of Gambia, who earned $133K and notched 6 goals and 3 assists, and Felipe Martins of Brazil, who earned $120K and had 4 goals and 10 assists.

AUFC's scouting department needs to hit on players like these, especially in the international market, if the team wants to succeed in 2017.

Lesson 4: Don't Get Too Cute With Trades

Montreal used their top spot in the Allocation Ranking Order to grab Eddie Johnson, who was returning to MLS after spending a few years playing intermittently for clubs in England and Greece. The same day they chose him, however, the Impact traded Jonson for striker Mike Fucito and midfielder Lamar Neagle. Fucito only played one game in 2012, and Neagle only started 11 games, scoring just twice. Johnson, meanwhile, went on to finish 6th in the Golden Boot race, finishing just behind Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane with 14 league goals and 17 goals in all competitions. To add insult to injury, the Impact dropped all the way down to number 19 in the allocation process after picking Johnson.

That's what I call a horrendous trade. Granted, Johnson hadn't played much abroad and it wasn't clear how he'd perform in MLS after several seasons away. And apparently Johnson didn't want to play in Canada. But even if that's true, the Impact still made a poor decision when they only gained two not-so-great players by using their top allocation pick.

The message to AUFC is clear: don't trade away a proven striker with a reasonable price tag—around $100K in Johnson's case—unless you absolutely, positively have to. Scratch that, just don't do it!

Lesson 5: Tie Your Team to a Particular Country?

I'm not sure how applicable this will be to AUFC, but I thought I'd say something about Impact owner Joey Saputo's penchant for signing Italian players. Saputo is a successful businessman of Italian descent, and even though he's Canadian, he's a proud member of the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame. He also owns Bologna F.C., who was promoted to Serie A last year. And so it's understandable that Saputo would prefer signing Italian players. I can also see how it might make sense to focus on signing players from one particular nation, especially if a large portion of your fan base feels a connection to that country.

But Saputo only signed Italian players at the tail end of their careers. Defender Matteo Ferrari was the youngest at 33-years old. Di Vaio was 35 while Bernardo Corradi and legendary defender Alessandro Nesta were both 36. Di Vaio and Ferrari put in meaningful minutes for the club while Corradi and Nesta only played 11 and 8 games respectively. (And Nesta earned $225,000 that year.)

I doubt Blank would go the same route as Saputo, but if he, Eales, and Bocanegra did create a player pipeline with another nation (Mexico anyone?), maybe look at players under 30?

NEXT INSTALLMENT: An expansion team that made the playoffs...the Seattle Sounders.