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Noel Butler

Analyst, TSN Radio 690 Montreal

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After a few weeks of dormancy, a plume of white smoke finally appeared from Stade Saputo late last week with news that Canadian international defender Wandrille Lefèvre had signed a two-year deal. The Impact opened SuperDraft week by announcing a shuffling in the coaching ranks, with Jack Stern taking over from Youssef Dahha as goalkeeper coach, and a new one-year deal for Eric Kronberg.

It wasn’t quite the news Montreal Impact supporters were waiting to hear with the return of club captain Patrice Bernier and a contract extension for Ignacio Piatti yet to be secured.

With 18 months currently remaining on Piatti’s contract, rumours and false reports of a move back to Argentina with Boca Juniors have dominated. No one at the Impact needs reminding off-season conversations last year were completely hijacked by speculation over whether or not Didier Drogba would be back in an Impact jersey for 2016.

So the last thing the club and its front office needed this off-season is uncertainty over a player who is in the conversation about the very best designated players Major League Soccer has had since the introduction of the ‘Beckham Rule’ exactly a decade ago.

As I have repeatedly stated on-air since Piatti ripped the Vancouver Whitecaps apart on the opening day last season, the Impact’s priority must be to sign Piatti for the remainder of his playing career. Piatti’s relationship with a football is so very reminiscent of the very best Argentinian soccer has to offer.

The announcement of Bernier returning to the club he originally re-signed with well ahead of the Impact’s inaugural 2012 season is long overdue. Training camp is set to open Jan. 24, meaning player medicals and evaluations are merely a week or so away. Bernier’s play toward the end of the 2016 regular season and throughout those incredible playoffs rolled back the years for quite likely the very best footballer Montreal has ever produced.

His value off the pitch still continues to grow. The last update on his status was way back on Dec. 2 at the Impact’s 2016 postmortem. Bernier’s recent announcement on social media — he became an ambassador for a trendy Montreal-based clothing line — is about the most explicit information we have that the 37-year-old would be returning to the Impact fold.

With Joey Saputo and Adam Braz scheduled to meet media Monday morning, only time will tell on those Piatti and Bernier horizons. Still, as they say, the best things are always worth waiting for. 

With the 10th anniversary of the announcement David Beckham was going to join the LA Galaxy upon us, it’s quite appropriate MLS would stage this season’s SuperDraft in the city Beckham called home for five years. Much has changed over the decade, including the fact that another L.A. team will join the league in 2018.

The MLS has grown leaps and bounds over this time frame, the opportunity cost of this is that traditional core elements of the league no longer bring the inherent values they once did. Call it the law of diminishing returns.

A consequence of more and more clubs joining MLS is that it waters down the importance and significance of the SuperDraft. A low second-round pick a decade ago is a first-round selection today. That elevated status puts much higher expectations on the player drafted. Yes, there will always be anomalies. Impact backup goalkeeper Kronberg, a part of Sporting KC's MLS Cup-winning squad three seasons ago, was drafted in the fourth round back in 2006. 

To say the Impact has received value at the SuperDraft since joining the league is being overly kind to a club that came as close as anyone in league history to an MLS Cup appearance when they literally fell, puffing and panting, at the last hurdle in Toronto last Nov. 30. Andrew Wenger, Blake Smith, Eric Miller, and Romario Williams, the Impact’s first-round picks from 2012-2015, are all no longer with the club.

Williams’ selection two years ago was the most baffling. Picked third overall, the young striker was shipped off to the USL’s Charleston Battery on a season-long loan last March where he scored a very decent 10 goals. Just a month ago the Impact announced Williams was surplus to requirements and traded to the expansion club, Atlanta United FC, for a conditional third-round pick at next year’s SuperDraft. For the life of me, I have no clue why the Jamaican international’s stock has dropped so dramatically.

Last year’s first-round pick Kyle Fisher, if given the appropriate time to develop at the top end of the professional ranks here, should buck that long-term SuperDraft trend for the Impact. The 22-year-old defender played two league matches last season, and very much impressed in his debut at home against the LA Galaxy. He earned heaps of praise from starting keeper Evan Bush, who described Fisher as a “beast.” Drogba, who scored the added-time winner that very memorable Stade Saputo Saturday night last May, said Fisher was the inspiration behind turning the likely draw into a crucial three points.

When the league unveiled the 2017 fixtures Thursday afternoon the Impact finally received the long-term wish to play a significant number of home dates throughout July and August. It’s no secret that the Stanley Cup playoffs dominate April through June in the city of the most famous and winningest club in NHL history. As a consequence, the Impact has often struggled at the gate and in getting their message out through these crucial months early in the season.

Last season’s playoff run to the Conference Championship has translated to very positive returns at the Stade Saputo box office for the upcoming season. Impact Executive VP Richard Legendre disclosing to TSN.ca, "85 per cent of our members have renewed for 2017. This follows our highest number of season tickets last year. So we have now sold the most season tickets at this time of year in our history."

One date you can be sure Impact supporters most eagerly await is a return to BMO Field on Sept. 20. The two clubs, who without exception provide MLS with its very biggest and best rivalry, will not meet each other until very late in August. We are well past the point the Impact need to meet Toronto FC early in the season to ignite the MLS fire in Montreal.

If I have one wish this upcoming season it would be that the league finally does away with preventing clubs from choosing to charter to road matches. It’s archaic in a league that is now demanding $150 million from prospective expansion clubs. As someone who spent well over a decade and way too much money travelling in constant support of my favourite club back in England, there is something rather magical about watching your team win away.

What most certainly aids in that regard is that your team arrives at its destination in the finest of football fettle. Hours spent waiting for a connecting flight damages.

Surely the fact that not one club in the league posted a winning record on the road through 2016 says dramatic change to the current travel restrictions imposed on clubs by MLS is long overdue. This for a league which projects to be in the conversation as one of the world’s very best within the next five years.