MONTREAL – Perhaps more than anyone else on the Impact roster, Greg Sutton understands the expectations that come along with being a professional athlete in Montreal.
From 2001 to 2006, the Ontario native spent five highly decorated seasons with the Impact, a stretch that saw the club win five straight Voyageurs Cups, finish at the top of the USL A-League table four times and capture a league title in 2004, all while Sutton packed his own trophy case with individual plaudits.
And although he left the Impact following the 2006 season to join up with his hometown club, MLS expansion side Toronto FC, Sutton still knows a thing or two about what makes Montreal sports fans tick, as well as their lofty expectations for the manner in which their city should be represented.
“They love to see people win,” Sutton told MLSsoccer.com on Friday, less than 24 hours before the club plays its first MLS home game at Olympic Stadium in front of more than 50,000 fans. “It’s a winning city as far as fans go. They want to see winners, so that’s where the pressure comes on.”
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With pressure come expectations. And with expectations come ... well, you get the drill.
After all, this is the same city that’s home to the NHL’s Canadiens, a member of the league’s Original Six club and winners of a record 24 Stanley Cup championships. Heck, even the Montreal Alouettes, the city’s Canadian Football League entrants, have won the Grey Cup seven times in their history, lifting the trophy as recently as 2010.
So although any expectations must be tamped down to some degree as Montreal’s first season in the North American top flight begins to gain steam, that certainly doesn’t mean Impact fans are likely to accept rampant losing or a side that fails to show promise from game to game.
Impact supporters may not expect championships from the get-go, but everyone around the club – from the owners, front office staff, players, coaches, media and, of course, the fans – knows that Saturday is a seminal moment for MLS in Quebec.
If they can take three points against the Fire – and entertain doing so – the Impact may have a 60,000-person down payment on their quest to put soccer on the map in what has always been a hockey town.
Captain Davy Arnaud, who only recently arrived in Montreal following a trade from Sporting Kansas City this offseason, acknowledged as much, admitting the players certainly understand what’s at stake on Saturday against the Chicago Fire.
“You feel pressure, for sure,” Arnaud said. “We know that this is a big moment for the club. “They have a great history, but ultimately, they are making a first impression on the city in MLS. ... There is obviously pressure. We want to put on a good performance.”
If they want to impress the – at last count – 54,000-plus fans that will pack Olympic Stadium to the gills, filling its massive concrete concourses and blue and yellow seas, Arnaud and his teammates will have to turn in a much more polished performance than they did last weekend against Vancouver in a 2-0 defeat.
Still, pressure or no pressure, the match is not a make-or-break game for their season aspirations, something head coach Jesse Marsch was quick to point out, calling the match “just another step along the way” at one point in his discussion with a crowd of media gathered to hype the event.
But try as he may, even Marsch couldn’t completely discount the spectacle his players are likely to face playing in an atmosphere and under a unique brand of pressure most will never be able to replicate.
“These are the kind of games as a player that you die for,” he said. “You don’t get many of these in a career, you don’t get many of these in a lifetime. I think our group recognizes that, appreciates it and will be ready to capitalize on it.”