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Mind game for Montreal in 2009
Impact finish difficult year with league championship

Saturday, October 17, 2009

MONTREAL, QC – Just seven months ago, Saturday’s USL First Division Championship winning Montreal Impact were on top of the world with a CONCACAF Champions League victory, 2-0, over Mexican power Santos Laguna in the first leg of the Quarterfinals on a pair of goals from Eduardo Sebrango on February 25. Then it all collapsed on March 5.

Sebrango full of celebration in win over Santos Laguna (Pepe)

Despite going up 2-1 in the first half of the second leg on strikes from Roberto Brown and Sebrango for a 4-1 series lead, the Impact saw the hosts shred the Montreal defense with two goals in the first 30 minutes of the second half to pull within one. With only minutes left to hold on, Carlos Darwin Quintero scored two goals in stoppage time that left Montreal devastated. The aggregate equalizer in the first minute of stoppage would have still put the Impact through to the next round on the away goal tiebreaker, but his second strike two minutes later sent the Mexicans through to the semifinal round.

“It got pretty rough in that celebration with 200 pound guys jumping on you,” Mauro Biello joked after the championship victory Saturday. “But it’s all in good fun. It was a difficult season for us. The [loss to] Santos Laguna and the psychological impact that had on us, starting off the season really bad and then coming back and growing as a team, showing character with the results and confidence and peaking at the right time. That’s what happened. The momentum we had at the end of the season, we brought it into the playoffs and I gotta congratulate all of my teammates and the organization on the fantastic job they did.”

Di Lorenzo and Pizzolitto down after defeat in Mexico (Pepe)

The mental hangover from that Champions League loss left the club still reeling months later when the league campaign began. Montreal opened the year with a scoreless draw against Charleston, then lost its next three.

A 1-0 loss on the road to Toronto FC in the opener of the Nutrilite Canadian Championship was the final straw for head coach John Limniatis, who was dismissed as head coach May 14. Assistant Marc Dos Santos was named to the post and led the club, ironically, to another scoreless draw against Charleston a day later. Two days later the Impact picked up their first win of the year, 4-0 over the expansion Austin Aztex.

Dos Santos, however, was unable to turn the club around in time to repeat as the Canadian champions, dropping their next two games to Vancouver in the Nutrilite series.

With wins in two of its next three league fixtures the Impact were beginning to recover, then disaster hit again in their Nutrilite finale.

Although they were eliminated from contention, the club suffered a record defeat at home on June 18, falling 6-1 to Toronto FC, who needed a four-goal margin of victory to win a tiebreaker over the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Gjertsen crushed after record loss to Toronto (Pepe)

“Tonight’s result is extremely disappointing,” said Impact President Joey Saputo at the time. “The players wearing the Impact jersey have to show pride and they did not tonight. Even though the match had no significance, we can’t hide our heads in the sand. This is not the way this club should perform in front of our fans, in our stadium. Being first and foremost a fan, I know that this is not acceptable.”

“I had to trust everyone tonight, since this was not a significant game. It’s just unfortunate to see how certain players responded,” added head coach Marc Dos Santos after the Toronto loss. “They were supposed to give everything they had and this is not what happened. We did not play with character.”

Although they won the next two at home, the club spiraled into a run of 0-4-1 over the next five, including surprising 3-0 loss in Minnesota on July 11 that led to disruption within the club when a series of photos surfaced showing Sandro Grande choking team veteran Mauro Biello in the moments before a Minnesota corner kick.

Grande was immediately suspended and released less than two weeks later by the club on July 20. The departure seemingly galvanized the club, which suffered only three losses from that point for a record of 7-3-4 over the stretch run to finish fifth in the league table.

Montreal and championship foe Vancouver were the only two clubs to finish with only one loss in their last 10, making them the two hottest clubs heading into the postseason.

“We continued working. We never gave up,” said Dos Santos after winning the title Saturday. “Even in bad moments we stayed in our motto, we stayed in our principles. We just knew that with work, we would get here and that’s what happened. We always continued working.”

New coach Dos Santos celebrates after turbulent year (Pepe)

“I think we controlled the games in every game in the playoffs. The midfield has done an excellent job, but the guys – everybody was big. We are so happy with this moment now.”

After winning the championship David Testo gave a lot of the credit to the first-year coach.

“A lot of focus, a lot of preparation,” Testo said about what it took to win. “We were coached well, told what to do. We just went out there and did our job. The ball happened to go in the net for us. You could just really see [Marc Dos Santos’] work and his dedication. And the thought that he put into everything, he made our jobs a lot easier.”

“I think everyone just came out today and played their role and did their job, and that’s what gave us success. No one really tried to do too much, and we just played simple and got the result.”

“I couldn’t be any happier for this team, this city, the fans here. They really deserve it. They supported us the whole year – even when we were down, so to come out on top like his and be champions at home, I couldn’t be happier and thank everyone for it.”

Gjertsen, Di Lorenzo, Biello and Pizzolitto celebrate title (Pepe)

After providing Vancouver with clutch goals throughout their championship campaign in 2008, Sebrango was en route to a fantastic campaign in 2009 with Montreal with his three Champions League strikes, but like the club, he too went through a difficult year, scoring only four goals as he dealt with his father’s struggles with cancer. He missed time with the club early in the season and later lost his father in June, missing more time as he returned for the funeral.

"It's been a tough season for myself and the whole team," Sebrango told Randy Phillips of The Montreal Gazette prior to the match, admitting his concern for his father may have affected his play on the year. "I know how important this game is. It's going to be special if I get the chance to win it and celebrate it."

"I'll dedicate it to him. Definitely," Sebrango said told Phillips. "Obviously, he has meant so much to me and to our family. He is missed. I want to win this one for him."

Sebrango returned to his role as the clutch scorer, providing an insurance goal in Puerto Rico as the Impact downed the Islanders 4-2 in the semifinals. He then scored the 3-2 game-winner in the first leg against Vancouver, a goal that may have proven critical in the mentality of both clubs heading into the final 90 minutes.

Coming off the bench again, Sebrango helped lead Montreal to its third league title Saturday, but gained the fifth of his career. He won his first in 2001 with Rochester and his second with the Impact in 2004. He then captured the next two in Vancouver in 2006 and 2008 before returning to Montreal shortly after winning the USL-1 title last fall.

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