National Writer: Charles Boehm

"It was a near-perfect game": CF Montréal revel in CCL thumping of Liga MX's Santos Laguna

For many, Montréal’s Stade Olympique is a case study of a “white elephant,” known for a flawed roof design, imperfect modular artificial turf and decades of dizzying cost overruns that pushed its price tag well north of $1 billion.

But somehow it just keeps summoning powerful magic when CF Montréal step inside for Concacaf Champions League nights.

The Quebec club added a memorable chapter to that history on Wednesday evening, producing a stunningly dominant display to sweep away a first-leg deficit and put Santos Laguna to the sword in their CCL Round of 16 tie via a 3-0 victory in front of a spirited home crowd.

“Today it was a near-perfect game, in my opinion,” said CFM playmaker Djordje Mihailovic, who scored his side’s second goal with an emphatic finish and assisted on Ismael Kone’s second-half exclamation point.

“This game wasn't our first game of the season?” he wisecracked when asked what was different compared to last week’s tense first-leg setback in Torreon, Mexico, a game decided by a last-gasp Santos winner. “No, we went into that first game a little over-anxious, I think, because it was our first game. And despite giving up a goal in the last couple minutes, we left the game pretty optimistic. And when we came back to Montreal, a lot of the guys were very confident that we can do something special here tonight, which we did.

“And when I say perfect game, it was a collective game. Everybody did their roles almost to perfection.”

Head coach Wilfried Nancy expressed the depth of his pride in his squad during his postgame press availability, though kept an even keel that suggested he believes greater achievements are possible in the coming months. In March CFM will meet the winner of the Forge FC-Cruz Azul series, which the latter lead 1-0 on aggregate heading into Thursday’s second leg.

“[When] my team is like that, we are able to do something good,” said the Frenchman. “At the same time also, we’re going to have bad moments, we’re going to suffer, we're going to suffer together. And today the team was spot-on in terms of the spirit … I'm not surprised. We have a lot of humility, because this is the way we want to attack all the games, and today they did it well, and this is our team.

“I don’t know if this is a statement, what I know is we did it,” he added, “and we did it with the way we want to play, offensively and especially also defensively.”

Their lack of an away goal in Leg 1 forced Montréal to walk a tightrope against their Liga MX adversaries, who despite a woeful start to their Clausura campaign retain plenty of attacking menace. Both Nancy and Mihailovic saluted the backline for preventing Santos from snatching a strike that would have dramatically tilted the series in their favor, while the entire lineup was brave and enterprising in their possession and movement.

Mihailovic spoke in moving terms about both the quality of the collective Nancy has built and his own individual experiences since being traded to CFM from his hometown club, Chicago Fire FC, after the 2020 season. The aspiring US international has been linked to a European move for some time, but says he feels quite fulfilled in the City of Saints.

“I didn't want to come to this club and leave after one season. Winning a trophy last year, developing individually as a player, I wouldn't want to leave that,” said the 23-year-old. “I mentioned it before that in order for me to leave in this winter transfer window, it had to be in something out of the blue, something so extraordinary that the club and I couldn't turn down, and that didn't happen. Nonetheless, I'm extremely happy at this club and all I have to do is look at how I progressed as a player last year. And the mindset of this club is to go forward and I'm definitely on board with that.”

Though Mihailovic cautioned that CFM are hardly the finished product yet, he sounded quietly confident about a 2022 season for which relatively few MLS pundits have projected Montréal as a leading championship contender

“We have a good idea of what we want to accomplish this year and we're a confident young team,” he said. “Last year was a huge growing opportunity for a lot of guys, as well as an opportunity for us to cement, and twist a lot of heads about us. We ended the year with a [Canadian] Championship and we brought that momentum into this competition, and now we played a fantastic game tonight against a team that broke this club's heart a while back. And now it's looking forward to the start of the MLS season.”