The Canadian national team have only ever played in one World Cup back in 1986 – and they have not been close since. Recent results in their 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign include a win and a draw against St. Kitts and Nevis as well as a goalless draw with Puerto Rico, but there is limited excitement or interest in the team’s fortunes. After all, football – or soccer – will never capture the nation’s attention like ice hockey does.
But the MLS is giving the sport a nudge in the right direction. In 2012, the Montreal Impact will make the step up from the North America Soccer League (NASL) for the 2012 season, becoming Canada’s third representatives after Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps. For a city that prides itself on a blend of cultures – including large European populations – it should not be hard to attract fans.
Clearly, the MLS looked closely at the success of the ventures in Toronto and Vancouver, did their research and gave Montreal the green light. They will take their place in the Eastern Conference and begin with an all-Canadian affair against the Whitecaps, who made their MLS debut in 2011. Look out for a stadium that seats more than 13,000 to be rocking as the likes of Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan come to town.
The Impact have a fairly short history but are wasting no time in surging forward. They were formed back in 1992 and owner Joey Saputo, head of dairy products company Saputo, has plunged funds into the team to build a new stadium and develop a solid squad. The team were crowned NASL champions as recently as 2009 and boast players with European experience such as Ali Gerba, once of England’s MK Dons, and Philippe Billy, who played in Italy and France.
Joining the MLS, however, will be an eye-opening experience for a squad that is short of star quality. League rules support ‘expansion’ teams through a process that requires other MLS teams to protect 11 squad members but make others available to new clubs, who can then pick from the pool of available players. The Impact have moved shrewdly, acquiring veteran striker Brian Ching and midfielder Justin Mapp from Philadelphia among their ten expansion draft signings.
Make no mistake, the Impact are not just arriving in the MLS to make up the numbers. Montreal made this abundantly clear with their pursuit of Frenchman Nicolas Anelka in recent weeks after the striker handed in a transfer request at Chelsea. Their efforts were ultimately in vain as Anelka agreed to a deal with Shanghai Shenhua – but it highlighted the ambition of Saputo and company. Rumours of a bid for Juventus’ Alessandro Del Piero also turned heads. No expense will be spared in acquiring a big name ‘designated player’ before the new season begins – and attention could turn to veterans like David Trezeguet or Michael Owen – but the team are currently focused on putting in the pre-season work that will lay the foundation for next season.
"We are focused on the process of becoming a good team," said Impact head coach Jesse Marsch. "The energy and the work we put in everyday, that’s what’s going to make us a good team. Not who we sign."
“You can’t cut corners and think that if you bring in certain guys and do something here and there, that you are automatically a good team. It takes time. I have sworn to honour that process.”
With no relegation in the MLS, the Impact will have time to get their bearings and adjust to their new surroundings. Teething problems are inevitable but this is an exciting step for the MLS and the city of Montreal.
And, if the adventure runs smoothly, the knock-on effect could be significant. For Canada, raising the profile of the sport can only benefit the international team and lead to more youngsters embracing the game. With safety concerns and rising costs both emerging in Canada as factors dissuading parents from pushing their children into ice hockey and American football, this is a golden opportunity for football to close the gap.