Impact preparing for CONCACAF Champions League game - The Canadian Press


MONTREAL — Nevio Pizzolitto didn't sleep well this week as the notion sunk in that the Montreal Impact was finally getting its chance to shine.

With veteran midfielder Mauro Biello out because of a shoulder injury, Pizzolitto will be team captain when the Impact play host to Santos Laguna of Mexico on Wednesday night.

The CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final game is expected to be played in front of more than 50,000 people at Olympic Stadium.

A throng that large for club soccer, in Montreal or anywhere in Canada, has not been seen since the heyday of the defunct North American Soccer League in the early 1980s, especially in the middle of winter.

"Last night, I tossed and turned a bit in bed, but coming in today there was an excitement I haven't had in a while," Pizzolitto said Tuesday as the Impact held their last practice on the synthetic turf in the domed stadium.

"Throughout this competition we felt a lot of nerves. We wanted to do well and show we're at a high level. This is no different. A big crowd will put a little more pressure on us, but we'll try not to concentrate on the crowd, but concentrate on what's on the field."

It is the first leg of a two-game, total-goals series. The second leg is set for March 5 in Torreon, Mexico.

The Impact's run to the quarter-final and the fan interest it generated has been a pleasant surprise for the soccer community across the country, although it helped that the club didn't try to gouge fans with heavy ticket prices.

Team president Joey Saputo said that while there were no give-aways, local and regional soccer leagues and school teams were enticed to buy $10 tickets. The best seats go for $25 or $35, with another 300 premium seats at $50 each.

"The tickets just sold," said Saputo. "Montreal is an event city and we built this as an event - soccer in the middle of the wintertime.

"We kept prices relatively inexpensive and that's important. It's a soccer festival. The fact that tickets were well priced, they sold themselves."

He said it has not gone as well in Houston, where the Dynamo of Major League Soccer was looking at a crowd of 7,000 for its quarter-final Tuesday night against Atlante of Mexico.

While he wouldn't provide figures, Saputo said the game will turn a nice profit, although with the Impact being a not-for-profit company, some of that will be put into Quebec's minor soccer system. CONCACAF, which governs the sport in North and Central America and the Caribbean, gets five per cent of the take.

The good news was that the weather turned sunny after a snowfall on the weekend. The match was only allowed to go ahead by provincial and municipal officials if there was no accumulation of snow or ice on the stadium's unstable (but heated) roof or the cables attaching it to the stadium tower. Otherwise, the game would have been postponed until Thursday.

An aura of the unreal enveloped the scene Tuesday, with snowdrifts next door on their regular home - 13,000-seat Saputo Stadium - and players training on synthetic turf in the domed facility inside. Few expected it ever to occur.

The Impact edged Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps in the Nutrilite Canadian Championships last spring, which made them the lone Canadian entry in the inaugural CONCACAF Champions League.

They got past Real Esteli of Nicaragua in a two-game playoff to reach the group stage, where they earned a spot in the quarter-final by finishing second to Atlante. It helped that some of the top players from Honduran club Olimpio were away with their national team at the time.

Should they beat Santos Laguna, which has struggled at home this season despite having stars like striker Cristian Benitez, who has just returned from an injury, and goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez, Montreal's leg of the semifinals will also be played at the Big O in late March.

While Montreal will have the advantage of the home crowd and having trained more than a week at the stadium, they will be playing their first real match since the United Soccer League's season ended in the fall.

Santos Laguna is 10 games into its season.
The promise of playing in the Champions League helped the Impact keep the players they wanted in the off-season. Gone are backup goalkeeper Andrew Weber, reserve midfielder Antonio Ribeiro and striker Severino Jefferson, as well as veteran Gabriel Gervais, who retired due to chronic injuries.

But they retained starting 'keeper Matt Jordan, midfielder Sandro Grande and striker Roberto Brown, and probably improved themselves by adding striker Eduardo Sebrango from Vancouver and Jamaican midfielder Stephen deRoux from the Minnesota Thunder.

"The important thing was to bring back the players from last year," said general manager Nick de Santis. "Even though we didn't win the league championship, I think we showed we were one of the best teams.

"Any team in the quarter-finals now has to believe they can win. That's our mentality."

The Impact's success certainly struck a cord with Toronto FC and the Whitecaps, who had representatives on hand for the announcement of this year's Nutrilite Canadian Championships. The competition to be involved in such a big event will no doubt make that six-game tournament more intense.

"I'm very proud of what the Impact has achieved," said Paul Beirne, director of business operations for Toronto FC. "It's wonderful to see that soccer is so much more relevant than it once was.

"For 2009, we're expecting even more furious competition. Last year, Montreal and Vancouver showed they are highly competitive clubs and anyone who thought Toronto would walk away with it were taken to school. This year, we'll have to earn it."

MLS is considered a superior league to the USL, where Montreal and Vancouver play, but Houston is the only MLS club in the Champions League quarter-finals while there is a second USL team, the Puerto Rico Islanders, who play Horduran club Marathon on Thursday.

Vancouver is one of a handful of teams bidding for an MLS franchise for 2011, while Montreal so far is out of the running. The Impact and partner George Gillett, owner of the Montreal Canadiens and co-owner of soccer giant Liverpool, refused to pay the US$40 million franchise fee asked by MLS. Their franchise fee plus stadium enlargement proposal worth $45 million was rejected.

Saputo said the Impact remain interested in joining MLS at some future date.

Bob Lenarduzzi of the Whitecaps said MLS boosts interest in the sport but whatever the league decides, there "will be a pro club in Vancouver.

"The MLS brand is strong, whether you like it or not. Just look at what happened in Toronto and Seattle. They've got 20,000-plus season tickets. In Vancouver we can do the same as was done in Toronto and Seattle."