Thanks to the vision and backing of the Saputo family, the Impact were born in the soccer void in the city after the Montreal Supra were left without a league when the Canadian Soccer League folded in 1992, six years after it was created.
The Montreal Canadiens were in the midst of a run to their record 24th Stanley Cup title as National Hockey League champions when the Impact took to the pitch at Centre Claude Robillard for the first time on that Friday evening 25 years ago.
With current Impact executive Nick De Santis in the starting XI, Montreal defeated the Tampa Bay Rowdies 4-2 before an overflow crowd of 5,380.
Grant Needham, the Supra’s original draft pick in 1987, returned to Montreal to play for the Impact early in their inaugural season after he was acquired in a trade with the Toronto Blizzard, who moved from the CSL to the APSL.
“We all dreamed back then, we just didn’t know how high or what the dream end could be, and we couldn’t even imagine the Impact today,” Needham said. “Like, could you imagine a $10 million training facility? We were just happy to get a park and play on it, right? You know, 3,000 more people to sell out? We only got 3,000 people to come to our games, and we thought that was outstanding.”
The Impact won an APSL playoff title in their second season in 1994, when Montreal sports fans suffered through the disappointment of a Major League Baseball strike that cost the city’s ill-fated Expos a shot at going to the World Series.
Needham is a color analyst on Impact radio broadcasts, and he’ll be calling the action when Montreal hosts Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the LA Galaxy for the 25th anniversary game at Stade Saputo on Monday.
“The proud part for me is I was one of the guys that built this,” Needham said. “Yes, the Saputos put money into it, but this team was built on the backs of guys like myself, Lloyd Barker, Patrick Diotte, Rudy Doliscat, John Limniatis, Nick De Santis, Mauro Biello, I could go on and on. Those are the guys that if we didn’t do what we did in the Supra years, in the early Impact years, there would be no Impact that there are today. And to see where it’s come from and where it’s at, and I can envision where it’s going to be in 10 years, I think the growth, we’ve only just touched on what the MLS is capable of doing, it makes me proud. I was there at the beginning, I’m there now, and hopefully in 10 years I’ll still be there.”
Fellow 1993 Impact teammate Lloyd Barker also covers the current edition of the team as a member of the media.
“Every single player had a second job,” Barker said. “Now that second job could have been playing indoor soccer in the winter months, but the summer season with the Impact was not enough to carry us through to make a living and support a family and a lifestyle. So we had to have a second job. Some guys went back to school in the offseason, other guys played on in another season elsewhere, and other guys had jobs, like in workforce jobs. So we did this thing for the love of the game.”
Patrice Bernier retired at the end of last season after coming home from Europe in 2012 to play for the Impact in their inaugural MLS campaign.
Bernier’s six seasons in Montreal at the end of his professional career brought him full circle, back to when he was a 13-year-old boy who loved sports, including hockey and soccer.
After following the Supras as part of the city’s tight soccer community, Bernier continued to support the Impact, who served a crucial purpose.
“It was to have a professional soccer team but we didn’t know to what extent it could be big,” Bernier said. “If kids thought of soccer, I don’t think they thought of the Impact at the time. Everything that you knew or heard of soccer was always abroad, it was always about the World Cup, about teams in Europe or South America. But I didn’t grow up thinking the sole focus is we have a local team that you aspire to go to.
And now, when you look 25 years later, all the work that’s been done, the dark period in 1999 when there was no summer team, and now you have a team that plays in front of 20,000 in a soccer-specific stadium, that has an emblem, a symbol that people identify to, and now there’s an academy that kids want to go to it and aspire to become a Patrice Bernier, a Didier Drogba, a Marco Di Vaio, a Nacho Piatti to be relevant to the team that is now, it’s a big, big, big step and I give credit to the Saputo family and to Joey to have kept that passion and to have kept it alive to now be an MLS team.”
Monday is set to be a special day at Stade Saputo, a stadium that opened almost 10 years ago to the day, with the club celebrating their three trophies during a halftime ceremony.