Champions League tops agenda as club opens training camp
BY RANDY PHILLIPS
The Impact has begun 2009 focused on going where no Canadian soccer team has gone before.
The Impact will face Mexican side Club Santos Laguna in a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal Feb. 25 - probably at Olympic Stadium - and the club isn't wasting time getting ready.
The team kicked off its 16th training camp with 20 players under contract yesterday at the Catalogna Soccerplexe in Lachine and the level of intensity for the first practice was as close to midseason as it gets.
"It's definitely down to business right away," said captain Mauro Biello, 36, who agreed Monday to a one-year contract extension to play his 16th season with the United Soccer Leagues First Division club and 17th as a pro.
"This training camp is different than last year, when we started at about the same time, but didn't have a league game until April. This time, we've got a humongous game at the end of February. We're excited about it," Biello said.
"It's the first day of practice and it was high-intensity. Guys will be fighting for spots. When you're faced with a game of this magnitude, you have to have this level of intensity right from the start."
The Impact will take part in one of four Champions League home-and-away, aggregate-goals series, to be played Feb. 24 to March 5. The top two teams from each of four groups will advance to the semifinals in the spring.
The Impact reached the Champions League quarters after finishing second in Group C of the group stage with an impressive record of three wins, two losses and two ties.
It won the first edition of the Nutrilite Canadian Championship by beating out USL rival the Vancouver Whitecaps and Toronto FC of Major League Soccer before defeating Nicaragua's Real Esteli FC in the preliminary round of the inaugural Champions League tournament.
"The guys have come in in good shape, relatively speaking, but you can easily see the excitement and eagerness on the part of everybody to get going," head coach John Limniatis said.
"This season, this beginning, is different from other years because of the CONCACAF match on Feb. 25, so things have to progress a bit quicker than normal. Our idea was to begin right away on the four aspects of the game: the physical, the technical, the tactical and psychological, right from the beginning.
"There's no time to waste," Limniatis said. "We're trying to prepare the team as quickly as possible for our first objective."
There were several noticeable absentees for a variety of reasons yesterday, including defenders Stefano Pesoli and Cédric Joqueviel, and forwards Eduardo Sebrango - who rejoined the Impact in November after spending the past three seasons with Vancouver - and Severino Jefferson. All are expected to join the team in the coming days.
Forwards Roberto Brown and Peter Byers, two of the club's top offensive weapons, are without contracts and were also absent. Impact technical director Nick De Santis expects to come to an agreement with Brown and said Byers was entertaining other
offers, but he did not rule out the possibility of the return of the talented 24-year-old from Antigua.
"Byers has shown interest in coming back, but the thing is that he's had offers to go abroad. So we're just in negotiations with him," De Santis said. "Saying that, we're talking to different agents for another forward."
With the retirement of veteran defender Gabriel Gervais, not re-signing veteran midfielder Antonio Ribeiro and backup goalkeeper Andrew Weber opting for free agency, a total of seven players who finished last season are no longer with the side.
But among those staying is starter Matt Jordan, a finalist for 'keeper of the year last season, who agreed to a new two-year deal last month after declining offers to go elsewhere.
The Impact will practise almost daily for the next four weeks before continuing its training camp in Florence, Italy, Jan. 31-Feb. 13. The team expects to play as many as four games there against second- or third-divisions clubs in preparation for Santos Laguna.