"Change is inevitable": CF Montréal's record-breaking 2022 opens crossroads


Djordje Mihailovic’s reported $6 million move to Eredivisie side AZ Alkmaar will go into effect in the new year. Victor Wanyama, the team’s sole Designated Player, says he’s not coming back. Transfer reports surrounding Ismaël Koné are aplenty, and will surely increase after Canada participate in their first World Cup in 36 years.

That’s just the midfield outlook, a changing of the guard CF Montréal – of a to-be-determined degree – must confront after their Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs run ended Sunday afternoon. A 3-1 loss to defending champions New York City FC rubberstamped that, bounced in the Eastern Conference Semifinals at Stade Saputo.

If not for an “unbelievable” performance from NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson, as CFM captain Samuel Piette put it, perhaps the scoreline would have been different. Yet they were down 2-0 going into halftime, and Mihailovic’s 85th-minute header was merely a consolation tally.

“Change is inevitable, it’s what happens in this sport. You win, you lose, things happen. So we’ll see. It’ll be an interesting offseason,” ​​said Alistair Johnston, whose own transfer possibilities – alongside fellow defender Kamal Miller – could escalate depending on Canada’s performances next month in Qatar.

“I hope that we can keep a lot of core players and I think we have complete trust in this management staff to bring replacements that are needed and find that next diamond in the rough, the next Koné. Our academy is producing players. We watch them – they come up and train with us, there’s some unbelievable players coming through. Montréal's in a good place.”

Montréal enjoyed an incredible 2022 season, finished second in the East and shattered their previous MLS records for wins (20), points (65), goals scored (63) and more. It was an incredible rise and, given the league’s current state, now comes the challenge of likely replacing several players.

“Of course there’s always kind of a feeling of the last dance, I think in any playoff run,” said Johnston, who joined in the offseason in a trade from Nashville SC. “When you look at MLS especially, just the turnover in teams, it is crazy. No matter what happens, even if there weren’t stratospheric rises for a lot of guys, which there was, there still would have been a lot of turnover. It’s just kind of how the league works.”

Teams don’t have to announce year-end roster decisions until mid-November, making vice president and chief sporting officer Olivier Renard busy in the weeks ahead. As of writing, only five of the 24 eliminated clubs have made public their comings and goings.

Whatever awaits, head coach Wilfried Nancy is confident in Montréal’s 2023 outlook after they narrowly missed the postseason a year ago. They then engineered a 19-point improvement that involved an MLS record for away wins (11) and an 11W-1L-3D stretch up through Decision Day.

“We’ll see the future,” said the second-year manager. “At the end of the day, I don’t know who’s going to come back or not but the team will stay here and the objective is to restart again. We’re going to restart with what we’ve done before in a good way and this is what happened this year.

“Last year, the first year, it was really good, yes. We didn’t make the playoffs but because of this first year, we were able to do a good year. So hopefully next year is going to be the same also.”

For one, NYCFC interim head coach Nick Cushing is confident Montréal will keep challenging for the East’s upper tier.

“Every team has to go through the losses and the feeling that you should have won,” Cushing said, with his team now meeting top-seeded Philadelphia Union in the Conference Final. “This team [CF Montréal] will become a winning team, I am sure of it. With a coach like Wilfried continuing to coach this team, they will be a dominant team and will win for sure.”

In part, Montréal’s rise is so impressive considering MLS Players Association salary figures place them in the league’s bottom third. They’ve found roster efficiency by scouring MLS, all corners of Canadian soccer and even abroad. Absent big names like in some other markets, Nancy sees progress.

“The point is when I took the team, is to get players we believe in and try to improve the players and to be clear about what we want to do,” Nancy said. “And for me, this is a success. For me also, all the players individually they grew.”

But as departures become clearer as winter nears, a what-could-have-been feeling will linger. Staying towards the top is never easy.

“We have to look at it as a building block,” Johnston said. “At the same time, we truly felt we had the group here in place to lift hardware, lift something at the end of the year. So it is a real bummer to go out this way.”