Montréal - September 18, 2004 - The only other time the Montreal Impact took the A-League title, Bill Clinton was winding down his first four-year term as President of the United States. Britney Spears was still in elementary school. Jay Leno was still considered the "new guy" on the Tonight Show.
On the sports front, the Montreal Canadiens had captured the city's last sporting title, winning the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup in five games over the Los Angeles Kings in May 1993. (They have not won one since). That year, the Montreal Alouettes were still a distant memory in the Canadian Football League, even though the club was reborn as the Baltimore CFL Colts (which was to move to the City of Champions in 1996, a year after winning the Grey Cup as the only American franchise to do so).
The 1994 version of the Montreal Impact, in only its second season of existence, had three young players among its roster - Lloyd Barker, Mauro Biello, and Nick DeSantis - which, led by head coach Valerio Gazzola, clawed its way to third place in the then seven-team circuit, then known as the American Professional Soccer League, the top pro league in North America (Major League Soccer was born in 1996). It took a Patrick Diotte shootout goal to even get the club past the Los Angeles Salsa in the best-of-three semi-final into the championship game. Jean Harbour's goal in the 21st-minute of the 1-0 title-clinching victory over the now-defunct Colorado Foxes on October 15, 1994 is still talked about in the province of Quebec's soccer community. 8,169 spectators had shown up that blistery cold Saturday afternoon, a franchise record for the young club. Ironically, the Foxes had defeated the regular season-champion Seattle Sounders in two straight games in the other semi-final.
Fast forward to 2004. Nick DeSantis is now the Montreal Impact head coach, Mauro Biello has become the team's all-time leader with 56 goals, 57, assists, 169 points, 236 games, and 18,527 minutes. Lloyd Barker has become a role player in the backfield, no longer a starter. Valerio Gazzola is now a colour man on the club's radio broadcasts on CKAC-AM (no Impact games were on the radio in 1994).
In 1994, sports fans in the city were lamenting what could have been as the Major League Baseball lockout wiped out the Montreal Expos' best season in ever, snatching a possible World Series title. In fact, Bud Selig and his cronies deemed that the 1993 league champions would be the defending champions when baseball would eventually resume, not the league leaders in 1994, giving Montreal sports fans an extra kick in the teeth. That fall, the National Hockey League was interrupted until the new year due to another sports work stoppage.
However much things change, things really do remain the same. In the beginning of another NHL lockout and the near-certain end of the Montreal Expos, just weeks before the loss of the team to the Washington, D.C. area, all eyes were on the Montreal Impact. Just as Harbor's goal was the decider in 1994, defender Mauricio Vincello, another unlikely hero with only two goals in 26 regular season games, gave Montreal sports fans something to celebrate with, like Harbor, a left-footed first-half blast to lead his team to a 2-0 victory over the Sounders and the league crown before a new franchise-record of 13,648 spectators at Claude Robillard Stadium. The A-League crown was only the city's second since the Impact last won in 1994, coupled with the Alouettes' who captured the 2002 Grey Cup.
The victory continues a roller-coaster ride in what used to be a sports-mad city. A total of 162,169 fans came to watch the Impact in 2004 in fourteen regular season home games (including one each in nearby Quebec City and Sherbrooke) and three playoff home tilts, on its way to capturing their second title in eleven seasons (the club was on hiatus in 1999). The total becomes even more incredible when you consider it is the first time the club has surpassed 100,000 in any campaign - for an overall average of 9,539. Consider the criticism the city receives by Major League Baseball that the 'small-market town' (of three-and-a-half million inhabitants!!) is not a sports town, and all you have to do is simply point at the Impact story to disprove any such comment. When less than a thousand people frequently came to watch in 2001, it was not for a lack of love for the team. Fans stayed away simply as a statement to the unruly ownership of the Ionian Financial Group (remember the annoying cheerleaders?), who actually folded the franchise that July - only to be saved by the league, and subsequently, former owner Joey Saputo, now the not-for-profit team's president.
Shysters like Claude Brochu, Jeffrey Loria, and Bud Selig have driven fans away from the Expos at Olympic Stadium because no self-respecting Montrealer will shell out a dime to any grave-robbing owner. Put in a legitimate ownership group, and the 1990s cinema-induced proverb of "build it and they will come" shall hold true for Expos fans again - if the team miraculously stays. Since Strato Gavriil ended his tenure of incompetence in 2001, the Impact has continuously been breaking records.
And the club would have continued doing so even if the underdog Sounders had defeated the Impact. When the newly-inserted Craig Tomlinson almost tied the game with a blast that hit the crossbar in the 74th minute, you knew the Impact was a team of destiny. When Freddy Commodore, the club's super sub of 2004, converted a Nevio Pizzolitto behind-the-back flee-flicker for an insurmountable 2-0 lead, you knew the Impact was a team of destiny. The fact that the club disposed of the Rochester Raging Rhinos in the first round of the playoffs, a club which had bounced the Impact from the playoffs four times, you knew where the Impact was heading.
Finally, the sight of fans standing behind ropes all around the field was absolutely incredible, reminiscent of sporting events up to the 1940s. Although most readers are too young to remember, a quick glance at old photographs of baseball games in which spectators lined the warning track behind a rope will give you an idea of the type of overflow enjoyed by Impact management. The atmosphere generated from the turnout for the championship game rivalled any Alouette game. In fact, one could even say it surpassed it.
The successful championship season is a culmination of all the hard work put in by Saputo, who could no longer hold on to the team in the fall of 2000 due to shareholder pressure to dump the then-money-losing operation. The championship is the perfect prize for a man who loves this club more than anything else. The championship is also the perfect prize for Montreal sports fans who love their teams but will not submit to any blackmailing tonic salesman who roles into town with a self-serving plan.
Good for you!
Impact Notes: The Impact outshot the Sounders 16 to 5 in the match, with 'keeper Greg Sutton called upon to make only three saves - despite being beaten by Tomlinson's bullet… Speaking of Sutton, not only did he receive his second consecutive award as the league's best goalkeeper, but he was rewarded for his A-League record-tying 16 shutouts and 0.533 goals-against average (third best in league history, minimum of 20 games) as the circuit's Most Valuable Player… Also honoured on the league front was Gabriel Gervais as Defender of the Year, named as one of the defenders on the A-League First All-Star team… Sutton and midfielders Sandro Grande and Mauro Biello on the First Team, while defender Nevio Pizzolitto was selected for the Second Team…
Oddly, the only Impact to be named Player of the Week was Sutton in Week 3, thanks to road shutouts in consecutive days against the Charleston Battery (April 30) and Atlanta Silverbacks (May 1)… Impact honours for 2004 went to Sutton (Defender of the Year), Gervais (Giuseppe Saputo Trophy as Impact MVP - ahead of Sutton), Grande (Newcomer of the Year), and midfielder Zé Roberto (Unsung Hero)… DeSantis was one of the three finalists for A-League Coach of the Year, which went to Bobby Howe of the Portland Timbers…
The Sounders' chances took a big nosedive even before arriving to town as Welton Melo, the team's leading goal scorer in both the regular season (10) and playoffs (2), was suspended due to his ejection in Game 2 of the Sounders' semi-final tilt with the Vancouver Whitecaps…Although DeSantis and Gazzola each won title with the Impact in their first season as head coach, DeSantis had taken over the reins of the club from Gazzola in 2001 on an interim basis. DeSantis was tutored into the role that season by Francis Milien, a fixture in the province's soccer community…
In the "Where Are They Now" Department: Jean Harbor presently works as an engineer for NASA in Maryland… And finally, for those who need to know, the Impact victory party was celebrated at Rosalie (1232 rue de la Montagne) immediately following the game, with DeepJ Max behind the turntables. Obviously, a good time was had by all.