The 2021 MLS regular season is officially over, culminating on Decision Day marking the end of the road for 13 MLS clubs ahead of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. No more ambiguity: All focus shifts to the offseason and what's next.
Here, we'll be covering three questions for every team moving forward. Think of it as an exit interview, if you will. Matt Doyle, as always, has you covered on his preeminent season-in-review for each club. Read that, too.
He has gifs. It’s tough to beat gifs.
Many people (this writer and the rest of MLSsoccer.com's season preview "experts" included) wrote CF Montréal off before the season started.
Thierry Henry stepped away from the team after just one season, and that rocked the club mere days before preseason preparations began. They started the season playing "home" matches in Florida due to COVID-19 travel limitations (remember that?!) and new signings were trickling into camp late into preseason, be it visa delays or national team duty.
Assistant coach Wilfried Nancy was given the chance to lead this team. It did not take long for the league to realize he was legit and Montréal duly picked up his 2022 contract option in May. They played exciting, defined soccer and picked up results at the beginning of the season and stayed in and around the Eastern Conference playoff race all year long.
Montréal defied obstacles and expectations in 2021. They looked promising, and while they didn't make the playoffs, it was certainly a positive year.
An underrated player acquisition storyline from the last year or two is how much success CF Montréal have had domestically, in addition to promoting from within with Nancy and how well that paid off.
In 2020 they traded for:
This year the trade market brought:
That is a tremendous ROI on those four deals. All four are not just definite starters, but building blocks. Particularly Mihailovic, who will find himself on a number of Best XI ballots this year.
The group, alongside Victor Wanyama, Samuel Piette and Kiki Struna, comprise Montréal's core. What will sporting director Olivier Renard and his staff add to that core to progress another level from playoff contention to bonafide playoff team?
That leads us to...
There have been some quibbles over roster specifics at CFM; there's not been great transparency. Wanyama is definitely a DP. Struna might be. All three U22 Initiative slots are taken (Ibrahim Sunusi, Matko Miljevic, Robert Thorkelsson). They could add a young DP for that third slot, or if Struna can be bought down as would be expected, they could add a senior DP.
The right senior DP added to a squad at the right time can do wonders. Columbus decided they had a strong enough core to contend, so they broke the bank for Lucas Zelarayan. Ryan Gauld has been one of a few key factors behind the Vancouver Whitecaps' resurgence. Sporting KC brought in Alan Pulido for that reason in 2020.
Montréal have a deep squad with plenty of options – look how deep the depth chart below runs. And how a number of players could have been listed at both positions (particularly those in the ST, SS, AM mix).
Just a few tweaks, depending on who leaves, is really all that's necessary. They don't have too many glaring holes – probably a new GK, maybe another forward if Bjorn Johnsen departs? – so they need to be precise in their offseason plan.
The foundation is pretty strong. It's their best spot since the end of the Ignacio Piatti era.
CFM owner Joey Saputo also owns Serie A club Bologna. In recent years, there's been more player movement between the two, going in both directions.
Montréal signed Tottenham youth center back Luis Binks in 2020; he excelled in MLS and joined Bologna in 2021. Lassi Lappalainen is currently on loan from Bologna, who acquired the Finland international and immediately sent him to Montréal. Orji Okwonkwo was named club MVP in 2019, the first of his two years in Montréal. He since returned to Bologna and was loaned out elsewhere in Italy. Bologna has sent two DPs to Montréal: Saphir Taider and Blerim Dzemaili. There's also Italian goalscoring great Marco Di Vaio.
Will there be more synergy between the clubs this winter? Will Lappalainen stick around permanently or follow a similar path as Okwonkwo back to Italy? Do Bologna have their eyes on any Montréal standouts?