By Clemente Lisi – MONTREAL, CA (Apr 25, 2022) US Soccer Players – Scores of fans streamed out of Stade Saputo on a chilly April evening in Montreal. They’d just watched the hometown CF Montreal defeat Canadian rivals Vancouver Whitecaps in what was a riveting 2-1 game. The encounter was the first all-Canadian match-up of the 2022 season.
The state of the game in Canada is very good, especially after the National Team qualified for their first World Cup since 1986. It also comes on the heels of the Women’s Team capturing the Olympic gold medal at last summer’s Tokyo Games. Add to that a new domestic league and the game has never seen so much potential for growth in a country where hockey dominates along with the USA’s three other major sports leagues.
Canada’s three MLS clubs, while fueling the growth of their country’s soccer culture, have relied on American talent to get them in a position to compete for a playoff spot in 2022. CF Montreal has relied heavily on attacking midfielder Djordje Mihailovic, born in Florida, and has six caps and one goal at US senior level. Nevada-born defender Tristan Blackmon leads Vancouver. Former USMNT coach Bob Bradley is in charge in Toronto with Americans in goalkeeper Alex Bono, center back Shane O’Neill, and veteran midfielder Michael Bradley.
For much of the pandemic, Canada’s three teams played home games in the United States due to travel restrictions. However, with COVID-19 under some control thanks to vaccinations, the teams are back playing at home and before crowds.
Stade Saputo drew 12,042 fans for Montreal’s home opener on April 16 against Vancouver, a match that saw the home side win their third straight of the season. It was their 100th win at the venue, which opened in 2008. The stadium is on the grounds of Olympic Park, where the 1976 Summer Games took place, and near the old Olympic Stadium where the now-defunct Expos once played baseball.
“Playing in front of our home crowd was great. The energy was there,” said CF Montreal defender Alistair Johnston, a regular on Canada’s National Team. “Everyone looked calm on the ball, especially in the first half. We came out strong early. Personally, I’m starting to get more acclimated to the team’s system of play. We want to keep this momentum going…. We’re going to continue to build. There are still some shaky moments, but we want to get to a point where we can take a 2-0 lead at halftime at home and then go push for the third to kill the game. That is the next progression for us.”
Montreal has gotten off to a roaring start, thanks to Mihailovic. His four goals and three assists in eight games make him one of the finest contributors to any MLS club this season. The club, 6th in the East and tied on points with 5th-place Toronto, already looks competitive following last year’s 10th-place finish.
Asked to assess Mihailovic, Johnston replied, “He’s playing at a different level.”
Mihailovic said he has the “confidence” to make the plays and finish off chances this season. “I think I always had it in me,” he said. “It’s more about having the confidence of actually getting it done. Having the confidence to take guys on one-on-one. It’s having the confidence to do the movement, and then remaining calm when it comes time to taking a shot to put the ball where I want it.”
The Whitecaps have had a harder time early on this season. The team has scored just six goals in eight matches and is in the Western Conference cellar. Back in the East, Bradley, in his first season in charge, has instilled some newfound confidence in a team that won MLS Cup as recently as 2017. His 4-3-3 formation is showing results.
“I believe in our football and I was very happy with the way we pushed and competed, but I still think our football in moments was not as sharp as I expect,” Bradley told reporters after TFC’s 2-1 win on April 16 against the Philadelphia Union.
Bradley has mixed veterans with youth, a blend that has worked before in MLS. Should TFC gain more confidence in the form of wins in the coming months, then Bradley’s team could very well stay in contention. Montreal hosts Toronto on July 16. That could prove to be one of those crucial games that often take place in the summer.
Last season, Vancouver was the only one of these three to reach the MLS Cup Playoffs. Whitecaps coach Vanni Sartini addressed his team’s poor start last week and promised improvements.
“The season has started not the way that we wanted,” he told reporters. “We have to be better in all things.”
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2018.
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