By Bill Beacon
MONTREAL — Midway through the United Soccer Leagues First Division season, the Montreal Impact looked like anything but champions.
But everything changed with the mid-season hiring of 32-year-old coach Marc Dos Santos and a strong second half, and the Impact ended up parading the USL Cup before their delirious fans on Saturday afternoon and proving their doubters wrong.
"This is a team that grew and grew and believed in each other," veteran midfielder Mauro Biello said. "We were together on and off the field and that was the difference."
Tony Donatelli, Joey Gjertsen and Roberto Brown scored in the first half as the Impact defeated the 10-man Vancouver Whitecaps 3-1 to win the USL-1 championship before a sellout crowd of 13,034 at Saputo Stadium.
The Impact won the two-game, total-goals series 6-3 on aggregate in the league's first all-Canadian final, to claim their third league title after victories in 1994 and 2004.
Ansu Toure scored for Vancouver, which failed in a bid for a second championship in a row and a third in four years.
In both legs of the final, the Whitecaps had a man sent off - captain Martin Nash in Montreal's 3-2 first-leg win last week in Vancouver and central defender Shaun Pejic in the 29th minute of the return leg, just before Montreal opened the scoring on a penalty.
"It's hard to win with 10 men in both games - we shot ourselves in the foot a bit," said Vancouver forward Marcus Haber.
The Impact elected to go on attack rather than protect the one-goal lead they took into the final match and the game turned on an aggressive play when Leonardo DiLorenzo slipped the ball into the Vancouver penalty area.
The ball came loose as the onrushing Gjertson tripped over goalkeeper Jay Nolly. Brown had a clean shot at the empty goal, but was brought down hard by Pejic and referee Dave Gantar awarded the penalty and flashed the red card at Pejic for serious foul play.
Donatelli, one of five ex-Whitecaps on the Impact, made no mistake on the shot.
"A penalty yes, maybe, but a red card, that's ridiculous," said Vancouver coach Teitur Thordarson. "The red card totally destroyed the game."
Brown pushed a pass in on goal and Gjertsen got to it in time to lift a shot over Nolly in the 40th minute. The rout looked to be on as Peter Byers set up Brown for the third goal in the 42nd.
But the Whitecaps struck back two minutes later, as Marlon James crossed the ball to the right post where Toure was waiting to head it inside the post.
The question for the second half was whether Montreal would crumble under the weight of a three-goal lead as they did in the CONCACAF Champions League quarter-finals against Santos Laguna in Mexico last winter, where they blew a 4-1 aggregate lead and lost 5-4 in injury time.
This time, they controlled the ball and ran down the clock as their fans sang and waved flags in the seats.
"We knew that the same situation can't happen twice," said Brown, named most valuable player for the final. "It happened to us before, but we kept focused for the 90 minutes and we made it."
The collapse in Mexico seemed to dog the Impact well into this season, as they were wiped out in Nutrilite Canadian Championship play - the qualifier for the CONCACAF competition - by Vancouver and Toronto FC, and were dead last in USL-1 play.
Coach John Limniatus was fired and Dos Santos took over. There was a nasty situation as veteran midfielder Sandro Grande was first suspended and then cut, but eventually the Impact adjusted to a new 4-4-2 formation and found their identity as team that controls the midfield, and rediscovered their scoring touch.
"When we took over, the first thing we did was put a poster on the wall of us lifting the USL Cup," said Dos Santos. "We believed, but of course some players were skeptical.
"But slowly, with work, they started to believe and now a dream has become reality."
"This season has been a roller-coaster, but we continued to believe in one another and that was the difference," said goalkeeper Mat Jordan. "We learned a lot from the past, but we don't live in the past. We knew that (Santos Laguna collapse) was over."
It was a big day for veteran striker Eduardo Sebrango, who won the Cup last year with Vancouver and did it again this time with Montreal. It was his record fifth USL title.
Thordarson took out two of his top players in James and Justin Moose, who was shown the yellow card in the 56th, early in the second half and then took out rookie of the year Haber in the 69th.
That's when Vancouver striker Charles Gbeke, the league scoring leader, and Montreal's Sebrango, both went on.
In the 80th minute, Biello went on to a standing ovation. It may well have been the veteran's last game, although he said he would decide whether to retire after celebrating the championship.
He and defender Nevio Pizzolitto played on the 1994 champion team, while Sebrango, Adam Braz and Patrick Leduc had joined them for the 2004 Cup.
The Whitecaps also struggled early in the season as they made personnel changes in a bid to get younger.
"You have to look at it positively," said Haber. "We accomplished a lot and I think we proved a lot of people wrong from the beginning of the season.
"We had a young squad. It was a bit of a rebuilding year. We're satisfied with the season."
The Impact went 6-0 in the USL-1 playoffs.
Vancouver beat Montreal in their first two meetings this year in the Nutrilite Canadian Championships, but the Impact came back to beat the Whitecaps in all three of their regular-season meetings plus the two playoff games.
It was the second time this year Vancouver has been denied a trophy while in Montreal.
They were in attendance as the Impact were wiped out 6-1 by Toronto FC, which eliminated Vancouver from the Canadian Championship.
Montreal's attendance for the season was 279,118.