His first game in charge took place vs. the Costa Rican league’s co-leaders, far from home, in a treacherous venue dubbed “The Monster’s Cave” where norteamericano visitors are typically put to the sword.
Oh, and his club’s all-time best player (Nacho Piatti) just left for Argentina, and his second- and third-best players (Saphir Taider and Lassi Lappalainen, in the eyes of this observer) have been nursing injuries as the new season dawns early thanks to Concacaf Champions League.
Given all that, Thierry Henry’s coaching debut with the Montreal Impact unfolded about as well as he or anyone else in the IMFC fold could possibly have hoped Wednesday night, via an alternately exultant and desperate 2-2 draw vs. Deportivo Saprissa.
Here are three thoughts from the result.
No one expected this much from L’Impact
Montreal have generally been seen as the weakest contenders among MLS’s five CCL participants this year, and with reason. Upsetting Toronto FC in the Canadian Championship final to qualify was arguably the sole high point of their trying 2019 campaign, and over the winter they chopped and changed coaches as well as a variety of roster pieces. And Saprissa looked like an extremely daunting foe in the opening round.
So naturally, they blew the doors off the Purple Monster coming out of the gates.
Orji Okwonkwo thumped a fine finish into the roof of the net after an errant pass from former MLSer David Guzman exposed the Ticos’ defense, before Romell Quioto cashed in on a sweeping quick counterattack with a lovely solo effort of his own some 10 minutes later. And while some opportunism was involved, it was all IMFC deserved after showcasing tenacity and organization in an intriguing 3-4-3 / 5-2-3 formation spearheaded by Bojan Krkic in a false No. 9 role.
Perfect start right? Yes, but…
You’re never out of the woods in Concacaf
Yet in this enduringly weird competition, even a 2-0 lead away from home before half an hour has passed can turn out to be a poisoned chalice.
At one point in the second half, the songs from the Impact’s band of traveling supporters could be heard clearly on the broadcast, suggesting a level of frustration and shock among the home fans in this famously loud old stadium.
Yes they cut the lead in half but Saprissa look frustrated as hell and at one point you could hear Montreal fans singing up in their section of the Monster's Cave. WTH???— Charles Boehm (@cboehm) February 20, 2020
Montreal did their best to add to their advantage and probably should’ve netted a third when Bojan had goalkeeper Aaron Cruz at his mercy, way off his line, in the second half... only to tamely miscue his chip.
The keen hunting of those early minutes inevitably gave way to a tired, blunted force. Saprissa maintained their ferocious pace, grinding down the visitors, who are still just five-plus weeks into their preseason and simply could not keep up in sheer fitness terms. And several injuries to starters made it all the tougher to keep cohesion.
Longtime CCL watchers would have recognized those flagging spirits, and the hosts’ ability to smell blood in the water, because this is a huge part of how MLS teams get their hearts broken in this tournament year after year after year. That sense of inevitability was palpable as Saprissa’s two goals finally arrived, and to be fair they were unlucky not to get more – Zachary Brault Guillard’s goal-line clearance was a particularly jaw-dropping feat of resistance:
Henry & Co. have plenty to work with
Sure, conceding those two late tallies will sting, and could ultimately burn the Impact if they can’t keep a tight ship at Stade Olympique next week (hopefully IMFC have inspired their city in Leg 1 and the Big O will be rocking, as it memorably has for big CCL nights past).
But the Henry project is off to a solid start. The French legend showed cleverness in his formation and tactical choices on Wednesday, doing his best to firm up the rearguard and maximize the intelligence of Rod Fanni, the 38-year-old center back who did so much good work in their penalty box.
Up front, Quioto and Okwonkwo were menacing along the channels, and the eternally promising, but all-too-often frustrating Bojan seemed empowered by his assignment. They worked well in transition and should improve as that chemistry develops. Samuel Piette was his usual dogged self in the engine room, ably assisted by unheralded second-year prospect Amar Sejdic.
IMFC probably still needs some top-shelf reinforcements to really join the reckoning in the upper reaches of the Eastern Conference – especially if injuries keep biting in CCL – but there’s ample reason for hope up north.