CF Montréal lost their head coach just before the start of the season. They lost their club president just before the end of the season. In between, they played quite a bit of really good soccer.

A gif is worth a thousand words:

The job Wilfried Nancy’s done has mostly skittered under the radar, which is somewhat understandable given that Montréal spent basically the whole year either just above or just below the Audi MLS Cup Playoff line, and don’t have any superstars.

But what they did have – what it seems like, anyway – is the start of something with the potential to be quite good, given the youth and upside of the current roster. Even if they did come up short in 2021.

Formation and tactics

Nancy took over from Thierry Henry on March 8, just five weeks before the regular season started. It felt like there wasn’t time enough to install a new system, and that Nancy would have to just layer his ideas on top of the foundation Henry had built in 2020. That foundation was a pretty ugly, low-block 5-4-1 that often employed advanced defensive midfielders and zero true playmakers.

Nancy largely kept the shape, though, because his version of Montréal played on the front foot and the 5-4-1 was almost always much more of a 3-4-2-1. And when it wasn’t that, it was a 3-4-1-2 with a true playmaker (Djordje Mihailovic) finding the half-spaces and pulling the strings.

There was a lot of counterattacking, and a lot of smash-and-grab to start the year. But by the middle of the season Montréal had settled into their identity as one of the league’s cleverest sides at attacking via possession, an attractive and often quite effective bunch.

In that sense, it was a marked improvement over 2020.

Highlights

Weirdly, though, there weren’t a ton of obvious highlight moments. The season-opening 4-2 win over Toronto FC has to be up there, as does the six-game unbeaten streak (4 wins, 2 draws) they strung together in late spring. There was also a 3W-1L-0D stretch in late summer, featuring another win over TFC followed by two-goal wins over Orlando City and Chicago.

As it stands, though, I don’t think any of those necessarily produced a moment that’ll stick out in supporters’ minds once winter comes. The Canadian Championship, however, might yet. In fact, it might have already:

‘Keeper PKs! Young Sebastian Breza buried his in the 11th round of penalties to advance Montréal past Forge FC in the semifinals of the Canadian Championship last month. They’ll face TFC for the trophy on Nov. 21.

Win a trophy, and that becomes the highlight of the year. It’d also be tangible proof that what Nancy’s building isn’t just about potential. It can win, too.

Lowlight

It didn’t win enough down the stretch, however. The reason I and so many others picked Montréal to miss the playoffs at the start of the year was simply roster-wide talent – it’s hard to see this team, on paper, as a top-seven side in the East. The fact that they were for so long is a testament to both Nancy’s work and the quality of the players themselves, which may have been underestimated.

But not by much. The margins were thin as hell and got thinner once injuries started to pile up. The first truly big loss was Mason Toye’s season-ender in mid-August, and then in early October both Romell Quioto and Victor Wanyama went down. They didn’t win another game that month, and in fact closed October out with two brutal results – a 1-1 draw at TFC in which CFM conceded the equalizer five minutes into second-half stoppage, and a 1-0 loss at RBNY in which the hosts found the winner a minute into second-half stoppage.

Those weren’t body blows. Those were right hooks to the jaw, and they knocked Montréal out.

Revelation

Sporting director Olivier Renard bet big on acquiring talent from within MLS last year. He shelled out $600,000 of xAM for Toye before the 2020 season ended, then another $1 million for Mihailovic and $225,000 for center back Kamal Miller once the offseason began.

All three have hit. Toye had 7 goals in 900 minutes and was getting looks in the kinds of spots that suggest this wasn’t just a hot streak; this was a forward who’d grown in his understanding of the shape of the game. Miller had done the same on the backline, playing himself into a starting role for the club and a crucial role for Canada.

And then there’s Djordje. His underlying numbers the past two years for the Fire screamed “potentially one of the league’s best playmakers,” and it turns out the underlying numbers were telling the truth: Mihailovic has, in fact, been one of the league’s best playmakers this year. He finished:

  • Second in assists
  • Fifth in expected assists, as per Opta
  • Fifth in set play assists
  • Fourth in big chances created, as per Opta
  • Eighth in total chances created

That is a superb résumé for a playmaker of any age. For a 23-year-old No. 10 who’s just entering his prime, doesn’t take up an international roster slot and can function as a playmaking winger, a half-space merchant in a 3-4-2-1 or as a true No. 10 in the 3-4-1-2? The kid’s worth his weight in gold.

Disappointment

I kind of want to just mention the injuries again, because without them I think this is a playoff team.

That said, everybody’s had injuries, and the ones Montréal suffered wouldn’t have been so devastating – well, the Toye and Quioto injuries, anyway – if arguably the team’s biggest offseason signing, Norwegian-American No. 9 Bjorn Johnsen, had lived up to his billing.

He decidedly did not. Johnsen scored just twice, and they both came in his second start way back in May. Then the 30-year-old went six months without putting the ball in the net.

2022 Preview

Five Players to Build Upon:

  • Mihailovic (AM): Whatever the formation or system, Mihailovic has found a way to create chances and elevate the team around him. The next step is to be a bit more goal-dangerous himself.
  • Wanyama (DM): He’s been a rock since his arrival, and that October absence was just super unfortunate timing. No reason to think he doesn’t have a few more good years left.
  • Toye (FW): If he truly has figured it out – and 2021's underlying numbers suggest he might’ve, though beware of the small sample size – 15 goals is very achievable, so long as he stays healthy.
  • Miller (LCB): He’s been a snug fit as the left center back in Nancy’s back three, and should only continue to improve in the coming years.
  • Samuel Piette (DM): Quietly putting together another solid all-around year, and is much more at home playing alongside Wanyama under Nancy than he was playing a more advanced role in 2020.

Offseason Priority:

Two center backs. Montréal paid $2 million in salary, combined, to Rudy Camacho and Kiki Struna as per the salary figures released by the MLS Players Association, and that’s a big old chunk of change to spend on guys who are, at best, fringe starters. And while a new, higher-quality backline won’t solve everything – I’d argue they also need to spend a DP slot on a goalscoring attacker to pair with Mihailovic underneath Toye – it has to be the first order of business this winter.

They might also want to think about goalkeeper a bit (I bet they’d love to get a do-over on that Maxime Crepeau trade from a few years ago), though Breza and James Pantemis do have potential.

But still: two center backs. That’s Job No. 1.