Translator and literary curator Peter McCambridge once wrote that “Quebec finds itself too exotic to be easily digested by the Canadian and US market, but not exotic enough to compete with the appeal of something new from Indonesia or Iceland … it’s at once too different and too familiar.”
The elegant Argentine playmaker is returning to his beloved former club San Lorenzo after six years in MLS. It’s a departure that, for me, carries a sense of elegant melancholy that’s deeply Quebec, even though it revolves around an import to the City of Saints.
For most Impact watchers, Piatti will leave as the club’s greatest-ever player. A three-time MLS All-Star and two-time MLS Best XI honoree, he scored 71 goals and 38 assists across league and postseason action, with his regular-season output of 0.78 G+A per 90 minutes quite exemplary. But more than that, he was a truly electrifying talent, a creative force who got you out of your seat and produced some of his most magical moments on the biggest stages. Nacho leading jailbreak transitions with the ball at his nimble feet is one of the more enjoyable sensations this league has ever seen.
Almost any conversation about his Impact career should include the exhilarating heights he helped them reach, most notably the underdog run to the 2014-15 Concacaf Champions League final – remember that stunning strike against Club América at the mighty Azteca? – and the stirring 2016 playoff campaign that took L’Impact to within a whisper of MLS Cup on a cold, rainy night in Toronto.
Both were heart-pounding, and both saw Montreal reach the doorstep of glory before falling short. Fitting, perhaps, given that the history of Montreal and French Canada at large is pockmarked by “what ifs,” from the Battle of the Plains of Abraham to the 1995 Quebec independence referendum.
This deal, on paper, makes sense for everyone. For Piatti and his family, they'll go home to the club of his choosing and will be closer to his ailing father and other loved ones. For San Lorenzo, they've received a plug-and-play reinforcement who led them to a Copa Libertadores triumph in 2014. And for IMFC, they stood firm and did right by a player who, as central as he is to the team’s attack, is about to turn 36 in the final year of his contract.
Yet hearts will ache just the same. Piatti leaves on the doorstep of another CCL campaign, in the wake of a 2019 season plagued by injuries, and probably won’t get the send-off that his contributions merit. It may hit supporter morale to lose a figure of his stature at this moment, although it’s also a timely challenge to IMFC’s younger talents to step up and lead a new era for the Impact, who have been long in the tooth for most of Piatti’s time there.
Montreal and its environs are Francophone, European in character, proudly distinct from the rest of North America – all unique and endearing traits, but inhibitors to Piatti earning the full adulation and attention that he deserves across MLS. It’s also telling that online reactions to the reports of his departure among fans and pundits unfolded mostly in French and Spanish, unfairly complicating their centrality in the wider offseason conversation.
Piatti’s No. 10 jersey deserves to be enshrined alongside the all-time greats, the likes of Giovinco, Lodeiro and Etcheverry, whatever language features on the placard. Let’s hope no one loses sight of that.