Questions loom after CF Montreal crashes out of MLS playoff race
MONTREAL — CF Montreal missed out on the playoffs this Major League Soccer season by the slimmest of margins.
A 1-0 New York win over Charlotte on Saturday, cemented by a 94th-minute penalty from John Tolkin, moved the Red Bulls into a playoff position and relegated Montreal to 10th place in the Eastern Conference.
But the big issue in Montreal is not that the team missed out, but how. CF Montreal was one of the league's worst road teams this year and managed to claim just six of the available 27 points in its run to the post-season.
"I’ll be as honest as I can, even if we would’ve made the playoffs, my answer would still that I’m not satisfied with what I saw on the field this season," said sporting director Olivier Renard during the club’s end-of-season media availability. “There were some very good moments, and attendance at home was very good, but the problem is we only played half the season. Away from home, we were non-existent both in terms of personality and style of play."
Decision Day — the final day of the MLS regular season — is often a day of heartbreak for more than a few teams. That was the case for Montreal on Saturday evening when, after losing 2-1 to the Columbus Crew, it had to rely on other teams to drop points.
“This a team sport, this isn’t tennis or golf,” said head coach Hernan Losada. “The expectations on some were higher. We were missing important players and our top scorer (Romell Quioto) started just 10 games, so we were expecting those 15 goals, and we didn’t have them.”
The season began in a similar way to its end, with injuries, tactical issues and a heavy road schedule leading to the worst start in the club’s MLS history.
After taking three points from their first seven games, Montreal went on a run that would firmly reassert it in the playoff race.
Montreal registered six consecutive home clean sheet wins in league play and eight in all competitions.
One of Montreal's intriguing subplots this season was the declining impact of designated player Victor Wanyama. After proving vital early in the season, while the club dealt with injuries, the veteran midfielder saw himself gradually phased out of the starting lineup and then out of the squad completely.
In the final poor run of form that saw Montreal miss the playoffs, Wanyama was a starter only once and came off the bench just twice.
While it was clear that Losada did not have the Kenyan international in his plans, there remains one year left on his contract.
“I waited at the beginning. The team was winning, and I respected that, but after the results started getting bad, I expected something to be done,” said Wanyama. “We had everything we needed (to make the playoffs), if an adjustment had been done earlier in the season and the team could express themselves on the pitch.”
Wanyama said he wasn't told why he was no longer being selected, something Losada vehemently denied.
Another player whose time in Montreal could be ending is Quioto, whose 24-game absence this season led to Montreal's worst offensive output since joining MLS.
With his contract expiring this season, Quioto had been very clear about the lack of movement on a new deal.
“Nobody spoke to me about it until today, I think it’s time to go back home until somebody calls me,” said Quioto. “My first choice would be to stay, I’m familiar with the club and the city, and I love it here. In all honesty, I don’t know why I had to wait until the last minute to hear something. Last year I asked for a better contract, and they said that was impossible.”
This is not the first-time contract negotiations with a veteran player has turned contentious. Rudy Camacho, Wanyama, and Kei Kamara have all been in a similar situation, with the latter then demanding a trade as the season was about to begin.
It was a challenging year for Montreal on and off the field. From the very start, it seemed as though key players struggled to adapt to Losada’s more vertical and aggressive style.
Kamal Miller, Camacho, and Wanyama — all players who ranked among the best progressive passers in MLS last year — expressed their growing pains in the new system.
“We unfortunately didn’t play the same way or the same level we did last year, there was a willingness to play from the staff, but with all the obstacles you have to kind of revisit that,” said captain Samuel Piette. “It didn’t exactly take to the group and we have a lot of young players so this is going to be a process. A year may seem like a long time, but when you’re starting from scratch still leaves a lot of work to be done.”
Other players flourished under Losada, who took over as coach after Wilfried Nancy left the club for Columbus late last year. Midfielder Mathieu Choinière, once a role player and a substitute, became one of the best workhorses in the league and was named the team's most valuable player.
“I wanted to be one of the main guys and do great things with the team this season” said Choinière. “I always try to bring the best out of myself every time I’m on the pitch or in training, so that was my main focus.”
Goalkeeper Jonathan Sirois played his first full season after returning from a two-year loan in the Canadian Premier League and stepped up when starter James Pantemis injured his shoulder.
Sirois recorded 11 clean sheets as a rookie, breaking the club record previously held by Evan Bush, en route to winning the club’s defensive player of the year award.
CF Montreal will return to pre-season training camp in the new year.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 25, 2023.