“You know how they say Mourinho is ‘The Special One,’ and Klopp is ‘The Normal One’? Well, Laurent is like ‘The Humble One.’”

So go the words of a member of CF Montréal’s traveling party about Laurent Courtois, the club’s first-year head coach, after a recent half-hour sitdown with MLSsoccer.com on one of the club’s many road trips in the opening stages of the 2024 season thanks to the frigid winter conditions back home.

It’s a decent summation of the impression the amiable, introspective Frenchman has made in his opening months in Quebec. He’s kept CFM in contention despite a new game model and six straight away games to start their schedule. To hear him tell it, his message to his new team is a combination of inspiration and insistence.

“I keep telling them that I have no in-between. I'm either going to be your biggest fan, or really tough and really demanding. Because we don't have time to play. We don't have time to lose,” he said in a wide-ranging conversation about tactics, leadership, psychology, culture, fatherhood and even Chivas USA, the since-shuttered team that gave Courtois his first taste of North American soccer. (More on those star-crossed Goats in a moment.)

“At the same time, I'm such a fan of what they've been doing, accepting the stuff that I've been asking them to do, while being on the road for three months, literally – two weeks in Arizona, three weeks in Florida [during preseason], then we start doing our work trips left and right, so hotels, bags, flights, customs, training on the turf because it's so cold over there for now. It’s a lot.”

Laurent Courtois - CF Montreal - 1

Columbus to Montréal

Courtois arrived in January as one of the hotter coaching prospects on the market, considering his role in Columbus Crew 2 winning the first MLS NEXT Pro championship and reaching last year’s final while developing multiple starters for a first-team squad that won an MLS Cup and just reached the Concacaf Champions Cup final.

Columbus is unique,” responded Courtois, deflecting his own role, “in the sense that I take a lot of credit for stuff where everybody [contributed] – it was really a club, a direction, and the resources and the competence on each department was incredible.”

Perhaps; the Crew have indeed evolved into a model organization under president Tim Bezbatchenko and the ownership group headed by the Haslam family, advancing light years from the existential crisis of a threatened relocation to Austin in 2018. Yet the sheer volume of talent Courtois has nurtured over the years, not just with Columbus’ second team but over a few years with their academy teams and at the youth systems of the LA Galaxy and Olympique Lyon before that, gives the impression he’s being modest.

He considers himself a player’s coach, guided by his own experiences as a midfielder who logged more than 300 matches across France’s top division, LaLiga, the English Premier League and MLS.

“I wouldn't change any of my players for any – except Messi,” Courtois said with a wry smile. “The second I spoke with Olivier, Vassili [that would be Montréal’s vice-president and chief sporting officer Olivier Renard and assistant sporting director Vassili Cremanzidis], I felt that was the extension of what I was doing with Crew 2.

“Those guys, they have a vision of roster and players they think that can be developed and maximized. And this is where I feel – I don't consider myself as a head coach, but more of an individual coach that give tips, an ex-player that can give tips to an individual. And I want to be part of that thing too, to help those guys to improve.”

Laurent Courtois - Crew - Talking

"We've got to make this happen"

Montréal, on the other hand, have been something of a North American enigma. A unique setting in cultural and linguistic terms, the soccer-loving city sits at the heart of a tantalizing local talent pool and the club is led by a passionate, impatient owner, Joey Saputo, with a track record of managerial churn: 10 head coaches in 12 MLS seasons, to be specific.

Lately CFM have focused on their own particular brand of Moneyball, seeking out value, nurturing homegrowns and restoration projects. There’s only one Designated Player (Victor Wanyama, who has played just 96 league minutes this season) on their roster, which ranked second from bottom in MLS in salary spend last year according to MLS Players Association documents.

At present the club are perceived in many quarters to have let the league’s best coach slip from their grasp, given what Wilfried Nancy's achieved in Columbus since he changed addresses after leading Montréal to the best campaign of their MLS existence in 2022. His successor Hernan Losada was unable to chart a course to the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs in his single season in charge, falling two points short of the Eastern Conference’s final postseason berth.

That recurring tendency towards turnover seems to have struck again this week, with multiple media outlets in Montréal and beyond reporting CFM have parted ways with Renard after nearly five years of the Belgian’s leadership, less than two years after re-signing him “for an indefinite period his mandate as head of the technical team,” in the words of a club release at the time.

For his part, Courtois says CFM was the only gig he even considered.

“The project of Olivier, Vassili charmed me right away, because I felt they were exactly the right fit,” he explained. “The style of play that I showed them, it was closer to what they knew from Wilfried – Olivier gave the opportunity to Wilfried, too, and I have something similar, even though there's a few nuances. So I'm like, it's a direct flight for my mom and my kids to come to Montréal. So all those lines, I was like, ‘Oh, we’ve got to make this thing happen.’ And as soon as I shake hands with those guys, I was desperate to get the job.”

Laurent Courtois - CF Montreal - Samuel Piette

Quick adaptation

Courtois was relatively unfamiliar with Montréal's Francophone cool and kaleidoscopic multiculturalism before his arrival for the CFM interview last fall. As with many other visitors from across the globe, it didn’t take long for him to be charmed and intrigued.

“I was able to walk and talk and go to restaurants, and you speak sometimes in French, because there's a lot of French with the Quebecois, then with all the different nationalities. So I'm like, what is this city?” he said. “I have been lucky to be in Valencia, London, Lyon, Los Angeles. But Montréal is really, really unique in that sense. And I don't think I'm wrong when I say that I think our roster is the roster with the most diverse nationalities of the league. Maybe I misread that, but this is exactly what I feel when I go to a cafe and walk around the street, is that it's so multicultural that I feel it’s such a special place for me.

“It's like you mix New York with Tokyo with French vibes; it's so weird to me,” he added with an awestruck shake of the head. “I’m still not over it. Everybody says it's just the beginning. And I love it.”

Courtois knows the vagaries of organizational, even interpersonal dynamics come with the territory. He is prepared to firewall them from what he believes is his core mission.

‘My focus is the players. What I mean by that is, I'm learning and I'll learn as I go and I'll make mistakes, and I'll have to adjust with different mentality, this and that - departments, politics, whatever,” he said. “But what doesn't change, what remains the same, is the players. What do they need? And how can I help and guide and make them better?

“The players are my safety spot,” he continued. “I'm older than you, I know what you need and when you're going to need to do this and that to make better, and then everything else is the details. So my job is to focus on the players, make them better. Everything else is a side discussion.”

Laurent Courtois - CF Montreal

Building on experience

A first-year coach emphasizing the appeal of his current job rather than its pitfalls? That’s to be expected. Yet it’s around this point Courtois diverts from the norm and shares a rare glimpse of his internal workings. Because for all the success he fostered in central Ohio, it came at a personal cost.

Part of his reasoning for moving to MLS in the first place – he signed with Chivas USA in August of 2011 – was to provide a cross-cultural and linguistic experience for his two then-young sons, Layan and Nal, in addition to the professional adventure it represented for him.

“I wanted to give the double culture to my kids, for them to grow in an environment different than France,” explained Courtois, who also holds a blue belt in jiu-jitsu, perhaps another sign of his inherent curiosity. “It was for me really, really important. And life in LA, it's not the worst. So beside the struggle or the happy moment, because there were some too, I was really focused on staying years for the kids to be bilingual.”

In short order he found himself surprised by what he encountered, in every sense of the word. First off, there was the specific and peculiar context of the club he’d landed at: A bold experiment intended to connect with expatriate supporters of Mexico’s most traditionally beloved club, which had its moments, but was entering its death spiral when Courtois arrived, deep in the shadow of their illustrious stadium cohabitants and would-be rivals the LA Galaxy.

“I noticed that we were outcasts. It was a little bit weird, for sure,” he recalled. “So not only I had to discover soccer in the US, but then you found out that you're also unique, not for the best reasons. And Galaxy was shining so much that we were the nasty little ones.

“It also gave me such a good picture of what I wanted to accomplish as a coach, because of what Robin [Fraser] and Greg Vanney tried to put together for the players to play the right way. And I was like, this is the base of what I want to do coaching. And this is how I started getting my coaching degree.”

Laurent Courtois 3

Lessons from Chelís

Chivas USA would be dissolved after the 2014 season, eventually succeeded by the far more effective LAFC project. Yet this redheaded stepchild left a surprisingly rich legacy, starting with the coaching tree Courtois can be considered part of. And it wasn’t just Fraser and Vanney who went on to build one of the best teams in MLS history, the 2017 treble-winning Toronto FC side that reached three MLS Cup finals in four years.

Courtois also played under José Luis Sánchez, better known as Chelís, the tremendously charismatic Mexican manager who led the Goats for just a few short months in 2013, but managed to make almost as many headlines as he did coach matches.

“Ohhh, the coach that changed my coaching life,” said Courtois, “in the sense that if those guys [Fraser and Vanney] gave me the taste of, if I want to coach, that would be that type of sort that I would be training-wise, this guy [Chelís] gave me an emphasis so much on, the guy would die for his own players.

“I’d played in small clubs where you’re scared to get fired, you're scared of the result. And all of a sudden I find this guy that would do anything for his players – even paranoid. He would fight for his player for stuff that you didn't need to. But that's how much he cared for his players and I'm like, maybe not that hard, because not everybody is a fight, but I really respect the fact that he would get in danger just to protect his players and I was like, ‘I want to grab some of this.’”

Chelís became an underground legend, known to spice up training sessions with sideline speakers blaring banda and cumbia music, and raffle off televisions and other prizes for players who finished tops in scrimmages and drills. Courtois hasn’t borrowed all those tricks, though he definitely took note of the Mexican veteran’s psychological wizardry.

“I remember everything. What a character,” he said with a laugh. “And I don't want to only talk about this, because it would hide how tactical he could be also. Because he’s so high-energy and everything that sometimes we forget that also he was so pertinent tactically.

“You mentioned about Chivas USA being seen a type of way. Well, he was like, ‘Let's embrace it. Nobody likes us. Let's go.’ And you wanted to go for the guy.”

Personal growth

Rather than scar him, the surreal Chivas USA experience somehow enhanced Courtois’ fascination with North American soccer. He was particularly struck by MLS’s rapid growth and the bullish outlook on innovation that accompanied it, which contrasted starkly with the cautiousness he’d experienced at smaller clubs in Europe.

When his Goats chapter ended, he elected to sign with the Galaxy’s second team as a player/coach, going on to complete his educational licensing with the French Football Federation, setting him on the course that’s taken him to his current station.

“I was really enjoying soccer in MLS, at the time where everybody start to try to look like Barcelona, and I was like, oh, they want to reshape the type of soccer,” he said. “Way more open soccer, not so much focused on, ‘getting a draw, and let's counter.’ No, they really want to try to play. So I wanted to be part of it.”

What complicated matters was that the close of his playing days coincided with the breakup of his marriage, and the resulting challenges to preserve a positive relationship with his sons.

“I was too – I am too – attached with my kids,” he explained, “And I had the divorce at the same time that I stopped playing, so all of a sudden I was not the soccer player anymore for my kids. And we went through this thing, and I was way too attached and I wasn't a good father, because I was putting all my insecurities about the divorce and stop[ping] playing on them.

“I felt that I was not growing for them. So I knew that I had to cut off this, because it was too intense – and it still is, but we just manage it better.”

Laurent Courtois - Wilfried Nancy - Embrace

"Discovering the level"

As all parties navigated that new landscape, Courtois struggled to find the right balance, to support his boys without smothering them. Though Columbus is closer to France than LA as the crow flies, differing travel logistics made it more difficult to spend sufficient time together.

“In Los Angeles, I was still able to make them come over a lot. The Columbus setup for various reasons wasn't the same and this is where I hit the wall,” said Courtois. “Leaving my kids, I had them joint custody in Lyon at the time, one week off and one week on, and when I took the plane to go – oooff, it was rough.”

His face lights up when he speaks of their present outlook, though. They’ve joined him in Montréal for the summer, and Layan, who just turned 19 (Nal is now 15), will work as an intern at CFM. He says he’s shared some of his experiences of parenthood with his players, and they seem to have guided his journey as a coach in some sense.

“A fantastic person, first and foremost. A guy who knows how to lead, a guy that is OK with being misunderstood at times when he's teaching us his philosophy or things about life, things of that nature,” said Montréal center back Joel Waterman this week. “And a very personable coach. He connects with each person individually and on top of that, we love his style of play. We love the things that we're seeing when we're playing at our best.”

Taking over a squad that had gone through whiplash of sorts with the drastic shift from Nancy’s methodical possession system to the intense high-pressing tempo espoused by Losada, Courtois has blended progressivism, pragmatism and patience. At certain moments CFM have strung together moments of gorgeous buildup play redolent with Nancy’s DNA; at others they’ve sat deep and hit in transition, most notably in a 3-2 road upset of league leaders Inter Miami in March.

“Well, first, Wilfried is a way better coach and established coach, in the sense that he's been an assistant for experimental coaches, and for years, and he knew that roster really well,” said Courtois. “I'm discovering the level. So it would be really, how you say, presumptuous for me to say, ‘I’m going to do this,’ where I'm a new coach with a roster that is half redesigned and half been there, capable, but not playing that style at all last year.

“They remember what they were doing with Wilfried before, but it is still a change for a lot of guys. I can't go from this to now all of a sudden telling them we're going to do this, while I'm myself still looking at getting to know: Are those guys going to be able to? Am I putting them in success? … So it's really been a beautiful challenge for me to deal with. But my concern was to not be too presumptious, trying too hard, too fast.”

Laurent Courtois - CF Montreal - 3

Work in progress

Currently 3W-4L-3D, with 12 points from their first 10 games, Montréal sit outside the East’s playoff places, yet are well ahead of where most expected them to be at this point, especially compared to last year’s early-spring woes.

Now they’re wading into a busy stretch rich with meaningful matches, most of them at home. It started with Tuesday’s Canadian Championship quarterfinal first leg draw at CPL side Forge FC and continues with a Saturday rematch against Miami, a midweek reunion with Nancy and the Crew, a Rivalry Week presented by Continental Tires clash with Toronto FC and the CanChamp return leg vs. Forge, followed by East six-pointers vs. Nashville, D.C. and Philadelphia.

By June, we’ll know a great deal more about the Courtois version of CF Montréal. But the project may still be in progress relative to its own ambitions for itself.

“I think we trust in that process and trust where we are now is going to be completely different from where we are even in this summer coming up, and by the end of the year,” said Waterman. “So he [Courtois] has been fantastic for us and it's going to continue to be that way.”

Courtois certainly seems to have gained buy-in from his team, even if he sensibly declines to take anything for granted just yet.

“I don't know about that. But I think they want to play soccer in the right way, meaning they want to do the thing with having fun, what we play that game for initially,” Courtois said. “And I have a few codes that I think can be helpful. We need together to come up with a common ground to execute this way that we like with those codes. They’re still far from what I think they can do.”