By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 23, 2019) US Soccer Players - In Major League Soccer, a single-entity league with copycat tendencies, Montreal is different. Quebec's little slice of Europe on the St Lawrence River is like no place else in North America. That's also reflected in their soccer club.
The Montreal Impact's rowdy supporters groups chant, sing and curse in French. Their home schedule usually starts a month later than the rest due to those frigid winters. The investor/operator, Joey Saputo, runs the organization with the hands-on passion, and occasionally the upheaval, more commonly found in Europe and South America.
This week the Impact cut against the traditional MLS grain again. In doing so, however, they underscored a subtle but noticeable shift in the league's approach to coaches.
Stumbling through a 1-6-1 slump that's put their playoff prospects at risk, Montreal fired head coach Remi Garde. That in and of itself was not totally shocking. Saputo prides himself in a heart-on-his-sleeve approach. Over the years, he's parted company with coaches at a rate that matches his Italian roots. It's also not the first time he's picked a surprising MLS figure from south of the border. Saputo lured Frank Klopas up from Chicago in 2013. That led to an underdog run to the 2015 CONCACAF Champions League final. That relationship soon soured. Klopas was dismissed amid a bad patch of results later that year.
It was the club's hiring of former Houston Dynamo boss Wilmer Cabrera as Garde's immediate replacement that turned heads this time around. Cabrera's two-and-a-half-year tenure in Houston ended on a 2-11-1 skid. The Colombian-American is well-traveled in this business but has no previous ties to Canada or Quebec. He's bilingual, but hasn't had cause to learn French just yet. The question of whether he'll be in Quebec long enough to do so appears to hinge on what he can do with the Impact's two months of the season. Beyond the MLS home stretch, that slate includes their Canadian Championship final matchup vs Toronto FC, which could earn them a spot in next year's CCL.
"The objectives are very clear," Montreal president and CEO Kevin Gilmore declared at Cabrera's introductory press conference. "Qualifying for the MLS playoffs and the Canadian Championship. Nine games."
Gilmore pointedly declined to specify the length of Cabrera's contract, coining a rather fatalistic phrase by noting that "there's no interim tag. We're all interim." This isn't exactly a traditional declaration of confidence we're used to hearing. It is, however, a fairly honest distillation of what looks like a very pragmatic partnership between IMFC and their sixth coach in their eight seasons in MLS.
Compared to other soccer cultures where head coaches are glorified session planners hired to be fired, MLS teams traditionally invest hefty amounts of responsibility and patience in those hires. Montreal once looked like the coldhearted exception. In recent years the rest of the league seems to be following suit, with higher stakes and shorter leashes for technical staffs. Last year saw a record nine MLS coaching changes. We're now at five in 2019 with plenty of time for more.
"The shelf life of a manager is very short," said Gilmore, "unless he performs in a way that justifies keeping him long-term. That number [six coaches] isn't out of the ordinary. Do we prefer that? No. Not at all."
That mindset can profoundly change the nature of a coach's relationship with both the club and the players. In a sense it suggests MLS is warming to the "firefighter" type, like a baseball relief pitcher or a veteran manager brought in to bail out a relegation-threatened soccer club. Arrive, assess, accomplish the mission, don't get too comfortable. Go easy with the expansive philosophies and long-term visions.
Cabrera knows relatively little about the Impact and their roster. He does, however, have extensive familiarity with MLS and North American soccer. His role in Houston's 2018 US Open Cup championship and 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs run is evidence of a specific expertise in the high-stakes and knockout situations that Montreal see before them.
"The idea for me, at this point, is not adapting the players to my philosophy," Cabrera acknowledged. "It's trying to help them with the rhythm that they have to be successful while making some adjustments."
The former US youth national team coach pointed to set pieces as one example where he thinks he can have measurable short-term improvements. It's entirely possible that he could identify and address that and other areas of marginal gain to engineer enough progress to guide the Impact to their objectives. However, it looks like a pretty desperate, pressure-packed scenario for most of us.
"Welcome to our world," veterans of the nerve-jangling environments at the summit of the game might say in response. That line of work exacts a personal toll that few of us would gladly sign up for. It's probably also a sign of progress for a league that has long struggled to infuse its regular-season games with meaning.
More from Charles Boehm:
- US talent aiming for spotlight in Bundesliga
- US Soccer adds another issue with Development Academy split
- Taking stock of MLS All-Star week
- Charting the USMNT’s autumn
Photo by Rob Ericson - ISIPhotos.com