From a new (and world-famous) coach and an early start due to Concacaf Champions League last winter to a pandemic shutdown, midsummer bubble tournament, extended regular-season residency in New Jersey and last-gasp playoffs qualification, 2020 has been even more of an odyssey for the Montreal Impact than most teams.
The curtain dropped on that journey on Tuesday night as they exited CCL at the hands of CD Olimpia, ending the Hondurans’ lengthy unbeaten streak across all competitions – which dates back to before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic – with a 1-0 result that wasn’t quite enough to overcome Olimpia’s 2-1 upset win in the first leg in Montreal some nine months ago.
“We’re out so the emotion is, obviously we’re sad of being out,” said head coach Thierry Henry postgame. “But we beat a team that didn’t lose a game for a very long time, and rightly so, by the way. But we couldn’t score the second goal.”
The Impact saw an early chance cleared off Olimpia’s goal line and could have snatched a stunning injury-time series-winner had Rudy Camacho made better contact on a late set-piece delivery gloved by goalkeeper Edrick Menjivar. But their disappointment coexists with a measure of satisfaction as they ponder a brighter future in year two under Henry.
“If Rudy scored that would have been the cherry on the cake but obviously it didn't happen,” said the French boss. “But I'm proud of my team. Once again, what can I say? We didn’t train for two weeks, we were in quarantine, guys were missing, we trained six times only – seven times but the day before the game, you don’t count that – and we performed. They had cramps at the end of the game, we didn't. So, there's nothing I can say to the team. They tried, they battled, they came back, they crossed the ball, they headed the ball, they went in.
“Obviously we’re disappointed of not being in the next round, but when you look at the opportunities that we created in both games, we should have gone through. At the end of the day, if you don’t put the ball in the back of the net in football, you don’t win the games.”
Highlights: Montreal Impact 1, Olimpia 0
With Olimpia content to sit back and play against the ball, Amar Sejdic ran the show for Montreal, orchestrating possession effectively and stroking a clinical finish inside the right post early in the second half to put his side in striking distance.
An unheralded 2019 SuperDraft pickup out of the University of Maryland, the second-year midfielder has made dramatic strides under Henry and drew strong praise from his illustrious coach.
“You train hard, you train well, you’ll play. Period. That’s how it is. And he showed that all year,” said Henry of Sejdic. “And then he has a brain for the game. That's always a plus. When you can think quicker and see quicker, you don’t need to run fast. And so that's what he does.
“Obviously he’s very important for us at the minute. Thankfully for us, he can do that next season. It's always more difficult when people expect from you, so he’s been doing well, so I hope that he’s going to do that again for us. But we are very happy with him.”
Sejdic, too, sees green shoots of growth.
“We fought hard and I think you can take a little bit of an optimistic point of view in seeing what this group has to offer. And there's a good foundation that we can build off of on this group and kind of apply that for 2021,” he said.
“It's going to be important that the foundation of guys that were here for the 2020 season bring in and make sure that the guys that do come in for the 2021 season kind of buy into the philosophy and understand what needs to be done in order to for us to achieve what we want to achieve.”
Though Montreal and their two MLS Canadian counterparts still face myriad uncertainty heading into 2021 as US-Canadian border crossings remain complicated due to the pandemic, the Impact are widely expected to make significant changes to their roster for next season.
Henry is likely to work his substantial contacts network for reinforcements from abroad and a sustained Homegrown movement may yet take root, with Tuesday’s debut for freshly-signed 16-year-old academy product Jean-Aniel Assi a possible harbinger of things to come.
In the bigger picture, the demanding Henry seems to like his group’s spirit.
“When I arrived, I said that this team is going to be a team that’s going to fight. It didn't always happen all season, and when it didn’t happen, I said it after some games: this team is going to try to play, and you saw that we’re trying to play against anyone,” he said. “Sometimes we got caught, as you know, but this team is brave, wants to play, fights. So we have to keep on doing that, and way better, obviously.
“There’s a lot of positives to take from this season to bring into next season.”