With the memories of a 2015 run in the back of their minds, the Impact make a return to the Champions League next spring, looking to best a run that had them oh so close to MLS history
In the afterglow of a triumphant victory over Toronto FC in the Voyageurs Cup final, Wilmer Cabrera was reflective on what it meant for his club to achieve such a feat. Despite the Voyageurs Cup being essentially a three-horse race for most of its existence, with MLS sides Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto holding a huge advantage over its USL counterparts, this year was a special edition for the countries marquee cup competition.
Thanks to the Canadian Premier League, the new start-up league making big things happen for soccer in the country, the competition was not as much of a cakewalk as before, requiring teams to be at their best no matter the opponent. While the format itself was a bit wayward, with a staggered format causing discrepancies in where teams entered, it was a big step forward for this nation.
Now, with the competition having reached its conclusion, Cabrera knows Montreal has achieved something important for its club. Not only were they victorious, dispatching longtime rivals Toronto FC on their own pitch, but the result also ensured that Montreal would represent Canada in the CONCACAF Champions League next season. After having had the chance to play in that tournament with the Houston Dynamo earlier this year, Cabrera knows how big being in a tournament with the regions finest will be for the city of Montreal.
“It’s gonna be fantastic for the city, for the players,” Cabrera said after the game. “That motivation for the club, now (there’s) the possibility to build something bigger for the city for the club. And with the players, they’re going to be very motivated, because that competition is an outstanding competition. They wanted to play and they wanted to perform at an international level. We put Montreal again at the international level, we put Montreal again flashing around the world, which is really important for them (the players) and for all of us.”
It’s a huge moment for many players on the Impact, who return to the competition for the first time in 5 years. With a lot of players not having had the chance to ever play in continental competition, they are excited at the possibility of making some trips next season to venues all over Northern and Central America.
One such player is midfielder Samuel Piette, one of the de-facto leaders on this Impact squad, as he has seamlessly established himself as a leader since arriving in 2017. He has become a fan-favourite in Montreal with his workhorse performances through the midfield, and not to mention his Quebecois background that relates him well to the fanbase, so he’s excited to be a part of bringing back Champions League to his home-provinces team.
“We worked hard, and did so the entire season,” Piette said after the game, with his jersey soaked in beer and a victorious smile on his face.
He added: “So to get rewarded tonight with that trophy that gave us access to the Champions League means a lot, it means a lot for me, for everybody and obviously it’s a special one for sure.”
The other player seated beside him at the beer-soaked podium, Montreal’s talisman Ignacio Piatti, will surely have some tales to recount to his teammate, having been one of the lone remaining players from Montreal’s famed 2015 run to Champions League final. Alongside current starting goalkeeper Evan Bush, Piatti was a shining star in that campaign, as Montreal came within 3 goals of becoming the first-ever MLS team to win the trophy. They fell 5-3 to Liga MX’s Club America over two legs in the final, with Piatti scoring a goal in the first leg and adding 2 assists in the second, announcing himself to MLS and the rest of CONCACAF.
That was at the beginning of what would be Piatti’s first full MLS season, having arrived to Montreal from Argentina in the middle of 2014, and he surely would have thought that it would become a regular occurrence for the Impact. Instead, Montreal hasn’t been back since, and with those memories still fresh in his head, Piatti feels motivated by the chance to return to the competition.
“To win here and return to the Champions League feels great,” Piatti said in French. “It’s a tournament where last time out we made it to the final, which I think about all the time. We were 45 minutes away from playing with FC Barcelona, we were winning the first half of the second leg 1-0, in Montreal, at the Stade Olympique, even though we eventually lost, it’s motivating to think we were 45 minutes away from Barcelona at the Club World Cup.”
Who knows, maybe Montreal will embark on a similar journey this time out, as the title of the first MLS team to achieve Champions League glory still remains up for grab. While their American brethren surely harbour some level of jealousy that the 3 Canadian sides have long competed in a 5 team tournament for a spot in the Champions League, Canadian teams aren’t eligible to qualify through the same MLS path that the American sides do. So even though it seemed weird that the Voyageurs Cup gave such an important spot, the MLS rules made it the only such way for teams north of the 49th parallel to get in on the Champions League fun, making that point moot.
Especially now, with the expanded competition turning it into more of a gauntlet of a tournament, those complaints will fly out the window. Even though there are changes that need to be made to the current format, having 13 teams (with plenty more to come) compete for the crown improved the quality of the Cup massively. With the CPL teams already providing upsets such as the famed Cavalry over Vancouver result, things are only looking up for Cup football in this country.
“It’s a more serious competition than (before), just playing two or three games and then you’re into the final and you can win it,” Piette said. “Now we have more clubs in Canada, and this (new format) is what Canada wants to do, they want to put Canada back on the soccer map with a serious competition like this one. It proves that soccer is growing here.”
With the end of that campaign resulting in a triumph over rivals Toronto FC, it was a sweet first trophy for Piette, who was pretty happy to do so in front of their travelling support in a city familiar to him. While he would have liked to win at home, Toronto was a pretty good place to lift the cup, and he hopes to get the chance to do that in the future.
But with the expanded Voyageurs Cup format, and considering Montreal is fresh off a 5-year drought in the tournament, who knows when a chance like that might come next for them, so, for now, Piette is happy just to enjoy being a champion of Canada.
“Yeah, for sure. There’s always a special feeling when you play in Toronto, with Toronto FC obviously, any team’s from Toronto really, but I can’t hide the fact that we would have preferred to win that cup in Montreal and celebrated with our fans, but at the end of the day, you just want to lift that trophy and that’s what we did tonight. I’m really happy with everybody. We’ve been going through some tough times right now, so it’s gonna feel good for a while for sure.”
Photo Credit to: Canada Soccer and Martin Bayzl