September 8, 2006 USL Montreal Impact vs Toronto Lynx (from Montreal Gazette)

Impact fires blanks in lacklustre regular-season finale

* * * * JACK TODD, The Gazette
Published: Saturday, September 09, 2006

Hours before his team took the field against the Toronto Lynx at Claude Robillard Stadium last night looking to clinch yet another regular-season championship, affable Impact president Joey Saputo sat on the sidelines with coach Nick

For Saputo, these are good times: the Impact is playing to capacity crowds, if the public consultation process goes as expected, the team will begin construction this fall on a new stadium at Olympic Park and year after year, the Impact is at or near the top of what is now known as Division 1 of the United Soccer Leagues.

For the fiery De Santis, however, the evening was not such a happy occasion: his team blew its chance to clinch first place overall with a lacklustre 0-0 tie against a Toronto team it has owned in recent seasons and must await the outcome of the weekend's matches to learn where it finishes and the identity of the opponent for the two-game USL semifinal.

"That's unacceptable," De Santis said of the lack of scoring that has dogged this team this season.

"They had eight days off. We're out of excuses. It's reached the point where guys have to look at themselves and ask if they're doing what they can do.

"We're lucky to be in the semi-final, we're lucky to get the bye. They (the Lynx) had more intensity than we did. Other than the penalty (a kick taken by leading scorer Mauricio Salles and saved by Lynx goalie Theodosis Zagar), I can't think of two or three great chances we had all night."

Most of what excitement the Impact did generate came from speedy midfielder Leonardo Di Lorenzo, who created his own chances with some exciting forays and got several useful crosses into the box that others were unable to exploit; the rest of the attackers, Salles included, were mostly invisible.

"We've tried all sorts of combinations," said a frustrated De Santis, "but nothing has worked. When you don't score in three games at Claude Robillard, that's unacceptable."

The frustrations of the evening aside, this marked the end of another successful regular-season campaign for a team accustomed to nothing else. This franchise has connected where it matters most, with its fans at the grass-roots level.

Watch the fans marching into the stadium an hour before game time and you realize this is a crowd like no other on the Montreal sports scene: flocks of kids in their soccer uniforms flanked by soccer moms and soccer dads.

There have been disappointments, of course. When you look at the banner at the stadium's north end, you see that the team's regular-season success has not been matched by domination in the playoffs. The Impact have won the league title only twice, in 1994 and 2004.

Perhaps it's just as well the Impact did not clinch last night: They have never won the title when they led the standings at the end of the regular season ('95, '96, '97 and 2005.)

This team is scoring in other ways, including with the new stadium at Olympic Park scheduled to begin construction this fall. Yesterday's chat was an opportunity to ask Saputo a couple of questions I have wanted to ask him for a while: Given that the team is already playing to sell-out crowds in the 13,000 range at Claude Robillard, why did he opt for a 15,000-seat stadium instead of shooting for 25,000 at Olympic Park? And why wouldn't it work for the Impact to share Molson Stadium with the Als?

On both counts, Saputo's explanations were more than satisfactory. Saputo took note of the years it took the Canadiens to begin selling out their 21,000-seat arena after moving from the Forum and he feared a loss of ambience and the all-important lure of the scarce ticket.

There was more. "One of the problems," Saputo said, "was that we wanted a green field." No yard-lines, in other words, because soccer does not look good live or on television when it's played on a field with all those white lines. The Als want 25,000 seats, the Impact 10,000 fewer.

Then there's the parking situation - virtually non-existent at Percival Molson. "We have a minivan crowd," Saputo says, referring to that legion of soccer moms and soccer kids.

The $15-million facility at Olympic Park, built with private funds, appears perfectly suited to the Impact's more modest aims. For one thing, the concrete stands already are in place on one side of the field, which is now in the centre of the track above the Alouette practice field.

And they will not be restricted to those 15,000 seats. "We'll have the ability," Saputo says, "to bring in another 3,000 temporary seats the same way the Als do." Real capacity, in other words, will be in excess of 18,000 , which should be more than adequate.

With luck, Olympic Park will be ready by the end of next season, leaving the Impact with a tough decision - move the team to an unfamiliar setting for the playoffs or delay the move until 2008.

That, however, is the kind of problem any franchise would like to have.

jtodd@thegazette.canwest.com

The Gazette (Montreal) 2006

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