Nancy, over his two years in charge of Montréal, had established himself as one of the best young coaches in the league, and his team as one of the most fun, free-flowing, ball-dominant attacking sides in MLS history. He’d done the above while squeezing a Best XI-caliber performance out of veteran DP d-mid Victor Wanyama, and also helping young players like Ismaël Koné, Alistair Johnston and Djordje Mihailovic hit the kinds of heights that led to significant bids, and eventually European moves.
And oh yeah, they also won, finishing third in last year’s Supporters’ Shield race with a club-record 65 points.
So this year was always going to be a referendum on the decision to let Nancy walk, and the final returns weren’t great:
All of this was predictable to a degree – it’s hard to sell and replace, even if you keep the coach – but I think the degree of difficulty was ratcheted up by the decision to hire Hernán Losada as Nancy’s successor.
The reason is that Losada’s Maximum Overdrive blueprint is about as far, stylistically speaking, from Nancy’s pretty-as-a-picture possession approach as you can get. So veterans who’d thrived under Nancy were either marginalized (Wanyama) or moved along (Rudy Camacho) or just plain less effective (Joel Waterman, Romell Quioto et al) under Losada. And because of that, this team lacked the foundation for any of the youngsters to take a Koné-type leap (though Nathan Saliba gave it a good run).
And so yeah, back below the red line is where they seemed destined to land most of the season, and when they won just once in their last nine, they finally got there.
Formation & Tactics
Under Losada, it’s always a 3-4-1-2 or a 3-4-2-1. They tended to draw their line of confrontation a good bit deeper than his 2021 D.C. United team did – that group finished eighth in possessions won in the attacking third, while this year’s Montréal side were 22nd – and they kept the ball on the ground through midfield a bit more.
But they were still a fast-paced, high-intensity team whose prime directive was to go vertical and attack the channels. When they were at their best doing that, Saliba was pulling strings from deep while a cadre of speedy forwards and wingbacks were opening up the throttle.
In other words, they mostly sacrificed possession and pitch control for space to attack into. It was often a lot of fun in the same way that, say, St. Louis and Nashville (Losada’s team was a pastiche of those two) were often a lot of fun this year.
After an awful start, mid-April hit and Montréal suddenly became the hottest team on the continent, winning six straight across all competitions (four in MLS regular-season play, and two in the Canadian Championship).
There weren’t a lot of unambiguously great moments for Montréal fans this year. Getting to send TFC careening into the abyss, though? Turning an early-season nosedive into a death spiral, one that would end with front office, coaching and roster turnover?
Montréal fans were rapturous.
They came out of Leagues Cup and beat Toronto again. That left CFM well above the playoff line and staring at a final 10-game stretch in which they’d play six at home. There weren’t a ton of six-pointers in there, but there was enough. It’d take a real faceplant for them to miss the postseason.
They won just twice. Matchday after matchday they found ways to squander home points.
Even so, a 2-1 loss on Decision Day – to Nancy, of all people, in Columbus – still saw Montréal hanging on to the final playoff spot in the East, provided Nashville didn’t do something stupid and give the Red Bulls a late penalty.
Well then, that’s that.
Saliba, the 19-year-old homegrown central midfielder, comes close. I think he’ll be part of the Canada national team set-up for a long, long time.
Mathieu Choinière is already there, and deserves to be. He’s a written-in-pen starter for this team:
The only question is whether he’s starting in midfield or at wingback. He could probably play fullback, too, if they ever went to a back four.
I can not pretend I saw that coming.
None of the young forwards consistently put the ball in the net. I like most of them – I love Kwadwo Opoku – and I expect a big step forward from one or two of them next year.
But if it’d happened this year, Montréal might still be playing.
Five Players to Build Around
- Saliba (CM): Needs to become a better passer of the ball, but the rest of the skillset is advanced for a teenage central midfielder.
- Choiniere (CM/AM/WB): Drop him into any spot on the field and he’ll find a way to add value.
- Opoku (FW/W): I think I like him better as a second forward in a 3-5-2, which just so happens to be this team’s best formation.
- Waterman (CB): I think he works better in Nancy’s system than Losada’s, but either way he’s a very good MLS center back.
- Samuel Piette (DM): Old reliable at the 6.
Can they move Wanyama somewhere he’s a better fit? He’s still got value in this league – I could think of 15 teams he’d help without breaking a sweat.
Given the development of Saliba and Choinière, and the return from a successful USL loan of homegrown midfielder Rida Zouhir, and the presence of Piette, I think Montréal’s got to kick the tires on the idea of moving on from their only DP. They have enough depth in that part of the pitch to do it.
If and when that happens, does that then open up enough budget for ownership to go out and get a No. 10? Because that’s the biggest missing piece. (Both Bryce Duke and Sean Rea are nice young players, but neither is the type of guy you run a playoff-caliber attack through.)
Starting-caliber playmakers don’t tend to come cheap, but VP and chief sporting officer Olivier Renard has pulled a few rabbits from the hat over the past several years. Maybe he’s got another one coming.