MONTREAL — The Montreal Impact held their end-of-year interviews, and there was a hint of drama.
Ignacio Piatti skipped the media day after the club told him it would exercise the option on his contract. Then Orji Okwonkwo shared how this season spent on loan from Bologna FC was filled with ups and downs. The Impact selected Okwonkwo as Player of the year.
“It’s been a difficult season, trust me,” Okwonkwo said. “I’ve never experienced something like this in my life, this is the first time. When you travel five hours, three hours to play a game and all that, it’s been very difficult. I cannot adapt to it.”
Okwonkwo also said MLS was about “strength, strength, strength” as opposed to the tactical nature of Italian soccer, and he stressed again that he could not adapt to MLS.
Meanwhile, Impact coach Wilmer Cabrera said he has no regrets about the “risky decision” to move to Montreal in early August. The Colombian spoke with sporting director Olivier Renard on Monday, but the discussion did not pertain to a possible return. For now, Cabrera is not worried about his future, whether it is Montreal or elsewhere.
“I know what I’m capable of and I know what I can do,” Cabrera said. “I need also to have a little bit of time to reorganize, to recharge my batteries and to make sure that whatever is going to happen, I’m ready.”
2019 season recap
The Impact had a strong start to the 2019 season despite having their first six games on the road. Montreal hit a major pothole when Piatti went down with an injury, starting a vicious cycle for the Argentine that sidelined him for most of the year.
Throughout Piatti’s absence, the Impact saw the offensive prowess of midfielder Saphir Taider. The Algerian finished the season leading the team in goals and assists. The Impact then fell into a downward spiral that saw them drop under the red line and cost former coach Remi Garde his job.
With only a few games left in the season, the Impact hired Cabrera with the hope of making the playoffs and winning the Canadian Championship. The new hire filled half of those objectives, missing the playoffs but hoisting the Voyageurs Cup. In the process, Cabrera became the first head coach in history to win both the U.S. Open Cup — won last season with the Houston Dynamo — and the Voyageurs Cup. He accomplished the feat in exactly 364 days.
Here’s a look at where every player on the 2019 roster stands entering the offseason:
The Buzz: Bayiha told media during his end-of-year news conference he played more minutes than expected his first professional season. The Canadian youth international added he aims to appear in every game, mostly off the bench, for the Impact in 2020.
The Buzz: Beaulieu said 2019 was one of his worst years and the first ever that he wasn’t a starting goalkeeper. The University of New Mexico product missed most of the year after undergoing surgery to remove a cyst in his knee before returning to play late in the season, and then he broke his finger. The 25 year-old hopes to find minutes on loan in 2020. He spent some time on loan with USL Championship affiliate Ottawa Fury between his injuries.
The Buzz: Joining the Impact on loan from Lyon, 20-year-old Zachary Brault-Guillard gained valuable experience backing up veteran Bacary Sagna at right back. The Canadian international said the Impact are interested in bringing him back for 2020 but the situation is still blurry with Lyon’s struggling situation in Ligue 1. He said he would be interested in a return, but added: “Everything is possible in football. I had a pretty good season, I know that I have a few offers too but everything is possible.”
The Buzz: Evan Bush was the undeniable starter for most of the season until the Canadian Championship final. Clement Diop finished out the season for the Impact after the club lifted the Voyageurs Cup. The Ohio native said he tried to keep his professionalism throughout, and he intends to be back in 2020 and take the team through a third Concacaf Champions League campaign. “I’ve never looked at it any other way than coming back and helping this club,” he said.
The Buzz: The Argentine suffered an elbow injury that sidelined him for six weeks. However, Cabrera returned with some of the most inspired soccer of his Impact career under coach Wilmer Cabrera. The centerback will remain at the club in 2020. In August, he signed a one-year contract extension with an additional option year.
The Buzz: In his second second season with the Impact, Camacho had a sophomore slump. The Frenchman fell out of favor in the first half of the season, but returned to a starting role in the second half. “With the injuries and suspensions, I managed to have good games and stay in the [starting XI] more,” he said.
The Buzz: The 20 year-old local homegrown player enjoyed a positive start to the 2019 season. However, his playing time dwindled with the coaching change. In 2020, Choiniere wants to have a true shot at central midfield, his natural position.
The Buzz: The Cuban came to Montreal from the Chicago Fire in the Tabla-Michael Azira trade. The left back did not find much playing time under Cabrera, but said he wasn’t expecting much when moving north of the border. “For me, Montreal is the best option right now. I wish I could stay next season,” he added.
The Buzz: After spending most of the season on the bench, Diop stood tall in the Canadian Championship. The Senegalese international helped the team through a penalty shootout to raise a first Voyageurs Cup in five years. Cabrera then put his faith in Diop and gave him the two starts remaining in the season. The 25-year-old has already met with Renard and wants to return, but also wants to ensure more playing time before he re-signs.
The Buzz: Rod Fanni returned to the Impact as an emergency signing in late August after the club declined his option at the end of 2018, when he ruled the Impact backline. He again made his mark in a short time. Cabrera said: “We signed him to play the four last games of the season, it was strange. I didn’t know Rod, but when I saw him I said: ‘Oh my God where were you?’” Fanni said another year with the club had been in the works when negotiating his return back in August, but he hasn’t had time to discuss that with Renard yet.
The Buzz: Anthony Jackson-Hamel didn’t hide his discontent for the Remi Garde era. The Canadian had almost no playing time under the Frenchman in 1 1/2 seasons. “The staff change had a big positive impact on me, personally,” he said. Jackson injured his knee in Cabrera’s first game at the helm and the club decided to shut him down for the rest of the season. The 26-year-old said he made clear he wants to return in 2020 and the ball is in Montreal’s court.
The Buzz: Daniel Kinumbe was one of the unluckiest players this season. Kinumbe ended up on the receiving end of a tackle during training that cost him his first professional season. After successful meniscus surgery in July, Kinumbe said he will be ready for training camp in January 2020.
The Buzz: Despite only signing in August, Bojan appreciated his time at the Impact. “When you feel that someone wants you and someone loves you, it’s the best feeling that you can have,” he said. Bojan has high expectations for 2020, saying the club should be in the MLS playoffs with the squad they currently have.
The Buzz: Krolicki often was an option off the bench. An elbow injury sidelined him during the preseason until May, and after that regaining playing time was difficult. Under Cabrera, Krolicki started one game and subbed on in one other. The native of Fukuoka, Japan isn’t sure what the future holds; he hasn’t spoken with Renard yet.
The Buzz: The Finland international came into the league with a bang. On loan from Bologna FC, Lappalainen scored two goals in a 3-0 win and already had all eyes on him. The Impact have two options to extend the 21 year-old’s loan deal through July 2020 and the end of next season.
The Buzz: Lovitz is in a contract year and depending on Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations, he may become eligible to be a free agent. The American international was named Impact defender of the year two seasons ago and had a breakout season in MLS last year. Lovitz earned consistent starts under Garde and Cabrera, but was left out of the gameday 18 for the season finale.
The Buzz: Orji Okwonkwo was named 2019 Montreal Impact player of the year. On loan from Bologna FC, the 21-year-old recorded eight goals and two assists. The Nigerian youth international’s future in Montreal was put in doubt with his outcry that he “cannot adapt to” MLS during the postmortem news conferences.
The Buzz: James Pantemis was said by many to be the future of the Impact at the goalkeeper position. However, the 22-year-old only played two games for the Impact, both in the Canadian Championship. The Canadian youth international aims for playing time in 2020, possibly on loan.
The Buzz: Piatti had a difficult season with the Impact. He said last week his string of injuries mentally affected him. Initially, the Argentine voiced his intent to remain at the club. However, during postseason interviews Piatti was informed the club intended to exercise his option year and then he decided not to participate in the end-of-season media day.
The Buzz: Piette has been vocal about contract renegotiation. The Canadian international said back in July he wanted a salary on the level of players such as Wil Trapp, Perry Kitchen and Kellyn Acosta. However Piette and the Impact still haven’t agreed to terms for 2020. In Sunday’s season finale, Piette added that he briefly spoke with Renard before leaving to join the Canadian men’s national team.
The Buzz: Nicknamed “The Finnish Knife” for his ability to play anywhere on the backline, Raitala finished the season at his preferred left back position. Raitala ended the season with 2,083 minutes, including 23 starts. The defender did not take part in the team’s end-of-seasn interviews due to international duty.
The Buzz: The former French international appreciated the Montreal experience to the point where he flew in his family last season. Sagna found 2019 to be positive despite missing the playoffs. He is interested in returning for the 2020 season and spoke with Renard about it, but expects negotiations to roll during the offseason.
The Buzz: Sejdic had a difficult season and didn’t start games for the first time in his life. Things changed when Cabrera took helm. Sejdic got his Impact debut in LA against the Galaxy and was part of the 18 for the three remaining games.
The Buzz: Shome was one of the most improved Impact players of the 2019 season. The Canadian imposed himself early in the season when the team coped with Piatti’s injury. He ended the season with 1,623 minutes played and 18 starts.
The Buzz: Tabla returned to the Impact on loan from Barcelona B thanks to the trade that sent Michael Azira to the Chicago Fire. The Canadian international started only one game and recording 127 total minutes. Tabla also had to apologize to Wilmer Cabrera for off-field issues. The winger did not want to elaborate on what the off-field issues were. However, Tabla said: “I think that certain people forget that I’m only 20 years old.” He said the club told him they would want him back, but he is still under contract at Barcelona.
The Buzz: Taider had his best season since joining the club. The Algerian international stepped up in Piatti’s absence and led the team in goals with nine and assists with seven. As part of his initial two-year loan deal from Bologna FC, Taider will become a permanent Impact player for the next two seasons.
The Buzz: Urruti is the first to admit his first season with the Impact was difficult. With 27 starts and 31 total games played, the striker scored a mere four goals. Urruti finds peace in the club finishing the season with its first trophy in five years.
The Buzz: The Impact’s latest homegrown signing, Yao is the only player not to have recorded a single minute in 2019. Despite this, the Laval, Quebec native said he has the physicality to play in MLS and aims to prove it during January’s training camp.