Seems like it was just yesterday I was lacing up my brand new adidas Copa Mundials to take the field for the first-ever league game in Montreal Impact history. It's hard to fathom how much time has passed since that memorable day: 25 years.
The modern-day Impact host the LA Galaxy on Monday (3 pm ET | TVAS, TSN — Full TV & streaming info), exactly a quarter-century after the club's inaugural match in 1993. Time waits for no man, they say, and over the past 25 years, the Impact now bear little resemblance to the upstart outfit of their early days.
I vividly remember, in the mid-1990s, making public appearances for the Impact at a shopping mall, a soccer tournament or a school -- and having to explain to people who the Impact was.
My teammates and I had accepted the fact that our main role off the field was to connect with the people of the city and to convince them we were a product worthy of their time and money. It didn't take us long to recognize the importance of public relations. Yet I'm of the belief that winning the APSL Championship in 1994 — in only our second year of existence — was the single most important moment in the history of the club.
Everyone loves a great story. And there was a fantastic one being written that year by the now-defunct Montreal Expos baseball team before the Major League Baseball strike canceled the season, an abrupt end to their fun. With the Expos out the way, there was not a more gratifying sporting story in Montreal than the Impact winning their first league title.
The 8,200 supporters in attendance at that championship game against the Colorado Foxes more than doubled our average league-game attendance. It was an indication that the city had been waiting for something special to celebrate.
At the final whistle of that 1-0 victory, we captured the hearts of the city. My game shirt was ripped off my body by fans who had stormed the field to celebrate with us. And although I feared being accidentally choked to death, in that joyous, yet frightening moment I knew: We had arrived. The Impact and professional soccer were officially on the Quebec map of legitimate sports.
The Saputo name remains synonymous with soccer in Montreal, specifically through Impact president Joey Saputo, and these days, when a player makes an appearance, fans travel across town for the chance to mingle with their idols. No need for players to wear name tags anymore. Those oversized jerseys and tight shorts have been replaced by custom-fitted Adidas kits.
Today's players don't have to worry about periodically cleaning out their lockers because a local karate or swim team needs use their stalls, as was the case for us in our rented dressing rooms at Centre Claude Robillard. Those confines, our reality from '93 until 2008, have been significantly upgraded to the state-of-the-art Stade Saputo and Centre Nutrilait, luxurious homes for today's players for games and training.
Supporters groups have multiplied and expanded over the years and causal fans no longer ask the club to try and control the noise of the chanting supporters. In fact, it's widely accepted that the singing and chanting is a special element that adds to the unique in-game experience that separates our sport from others.
When the Impact finally joined MLS in 2012, it catapulted the sport and the franchise past the Montreal Alouettes football club and into the same conversation as the infamous Montreal Canadiens hockey club. That's an achievement even us original players never envisioned.
No one is under the illusion that the Impact will ever surpass the Canadiens in terms of popularity, and while young boys have traditionally dreamt of becoming the next goaltender between the pipes and not the sticks, it's not far-fetched that they're also dreaming of becoming the next local soccer star like Patrice Bernier or Samuel Piette.
Here's to the next 25, Montreal.
LLOYD BARKER is a native of Kingston, Jamaica and Impact original who played for four teams during his 16-year professional career. A member of the first starting XI in Montreal Impact history, he made 190 appearances during two stints in Montreal.